Respiratory syncytial virus infection in elderly adults

Drugs Aging. 2005;22(7):577-87. doi: 10.2165/00002512-200522070-00004.


Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) infection is now recognised as a significant problem in elderly adults. Epidemiological evidence indicates the impact of RSV in older adults may be similar to non-pandemic influenza, both in the community and in long-term care facilities. Attack rates in nursing homes are approximately 5-10% per year with significant rates of pneumonia (10-20%) and death (2-5%). Estimates using US health care databases and viral surveillance results over a 9-year period indicate that RSV infection causes approximately 10,000 all-cause deaths annually among persons >64 years of age. In contrast, influenza A accounted for approximately 37,000 yearly deaths in the same age group. The clinical features of RSV infection may be difficult to distinguish from those of influenza but include nasal congestion, cough, wheezing and low-grade fever. Older persons with underlying heart and lung disease and immunocompromised patients are at highest risk for RSV infection-related pneumonia and death. Diagnosis of RSV infection in adults is difficult because viral culture and antigen detection are insensitive, presumably because of low viral titres. The combination of serology and reverse transcriptase polymerase chain reaction assay offers the best sensitivity and specificity for the diagnosis of RSV but unfortunately these techniques are not widely available; consequently, most adult RSV disease goes unrecognised. Although treatment of RSV infection in the elderly is largely supportive, early therapy with ribavirin and intravenous gamma-globulin improves survival in immunocompromised persons. An effective RSV vaccine has not yet been developed. Therefore, prevention of RSV is limited to standard infection control practices, such as hand washing and the use of gowns and gloves.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Homes for the Aged
  • Humans
  • Long-Term Care
  • Nursing Homes
  • Respiratory Syncytial Virus Infections* / diagnosis
  • Respiratory Syncytial Virus Infections* / prevention & control
  • Respiratory Syncytial Virus Infections* / therapy
  • Respiratory Syncytial Virus Infections* / transmission
  • Respiratory Syncytial Virus, Human
  • Vaccination