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Should You Get the RSV Vaccine?

Find out who’s eligible for the new shot, when to get it and what side effects to expect 

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Cases of RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus, are starting to pick up in the U.S., and for the first time, adults 60 and older have a way to lower their risk of getting sick with this common virus that sends as many as 177,000 Americans 65-plus to the hospital each year.

The Food and Drug Administration has approved two RSV vaccines for adults 60 and older, and the shots are available in pharmacies and doctors’ offices throughout the U.S. (Under 60? The FDA also approved an RSV vaccine for pregnant women and two RSV monoclonal antibodies for infants.) 

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Should you get it? Here’s what the experts say.

People at high risk will benefit the most

Unlike the flu shot and new COVID-19 vaccine, the RSV vaccines don’t come with a universal recommendation. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says older adults should talk to their doctor about whether they need a shot.

There are people “who are going to most benefit from this vaccine,” says Chad D. Neilsen, an infectious disease epidemiologist at University of Florida Health in Jacksonville — and it’s individuals who are at higher risk for severe illness from an RSV infection.  

This population includes people who live in nursing homes and other group settings, individuals who are immunocompromised and adults who have underlying health conditions, such as:  

  • Diabetes
  • Diseases that affect the heart and lungs, including COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) and asthma  
  • Kidney disorders
  • Liver disorders
  • Neurologic or neuromuscular conditions
  • Blood disorders

new study from the CDC looked at 1,634 adults age 60 and older who were hospitalized with RSV between July 2022 and June 2023 and found that most patients had at least one underlying health condition, such as obesity, COPD, diabetes or congestive heart failure.

The CDC says adults who are frail and those of advanced age are also at high risk, since the immune system weakens as you get older. 

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“Most healthy 60-year-old individuals who don’t live in group settings are not immunocompromised, don’t have underlying health factors — their bodies can probably handle fighting off RSV without a vaccine,” Neilsen says, although it’s important to discuss the decision with your doctor. The CDC estimates that nearly 86 percent of adults 65 and older have at least one chronic health condition; more than half have at least two. 

If you’re under 60 and have risk factors for severe RSV, your doctor may choose to give you a vaccine “off-label.” However, it’s important to note that the data for this age group has not been reviewed by the FDA, says William Schaffner, M.D., a spokesperson for the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases and a professor of medicine at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. Because the shot hasn’t been approved for this age group, your insurance likely won’t cover it. (Schaffner says the vaccines can cost about $300 on the commercial market.)  

Another consideration: If you spend a lot of time around children — who, like older adults, are more vulnerable to RSV — you may want a vaccine to help protect yourself and the youngsters in your life, says Michelle Prickett, M.D., associate professor of medicine in pulmonary and critical care at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

What about side effects of RSV vaccines?

Both of the approved RSV vaccines were found to be “very effective in preventing illness,” Prickett says, which could mean less time spent sneezing, wheezing and feeling miserable this fall and winter.  

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Arexvy, the single-dose RSV vaccine from drugmaker GSK, was 82.6 percent effective against lower respiratory tract disease (coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath) in the first season; while Abrysvo, the single-dose RSV vaccine from Pfizer, was nearly 89 percent effective.

When it comes to side effects, RSV vaccine is similar to other respiratory virus vaccines, Prickett says. “[It can cause] some minor pain, swelling in the injection site, maybe a little bit of fever, but it’s been very well-tolerated,” she says.  

In the clinical trials testing Arexvy, 61 percent of study participants reported pain at the injection site; 34 percent reported fatigue; 29 percent reported muscle aches; and 27 percent reported a headache. The most common side effects among trial participants who received Abrysvo were fatigue (16 percent), headache (13 percent) and pain at the injection site (11 percent).

A small number of clinical trial participants (six out of more than 38,100) who received the vaccine experienced neuroinflammatory reactions such as Guillain-Barre syndrome, a rare disorder that can lead to weakness or even temporary paralysis. A handful of cases of atrial fibrillation, or an irregular heart rhythm, were also reported.

Researchers are conducting additional safety studies to determine whether the vaccines triggered these reactions or if they occurred at random, the CDC says. In the meantime, Prickett says people who have had neuroinflammatory reactions to other vaccines should talk to their doctor and weigh the risks and benefits of RSV vaccines. “In most patients, though, that’s probably less of a concern,” she adds.  

When should you get the RSV vaccine?

If you’re going to get it, you should get it as soon as you can. Virus season is upon us, and cases of RSV are already ticking up in the U.S., federal data shows. “And with any vaccine, it takes a few days to a few weeks to fully build up the immunity that that vaccine has given you,” Neilsen says. 

You can get the RSV vaccine at the same time as your flu shot and COVID-19 vaccine; however, if you prefer to space it out from the other two, that’s fine. Studies suggest that you may experience more of the common side effects if you get your flu shot alongside an RSV vaccine. It’s also possible that RSV and flu vaccines won’t produce as strong of an immune response when given together, though more research is needed. 

“It’s really your preference in terms of convenience,” CDC Director Mandy Cohen, M.D., said at a recent briefing with the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases. 

Video: Is It Safe to Get Three Vaccines at Once?

Editor's note: This story, first published Oct. 2, 2023, has been updated to include new information.  

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