Best Practices

RSV Prevention Strategies: Beyond Face Masks

RSV Prevention Strategies: Beyond Face Masks

Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) infections are common and contagious. RSV outbreaks happen most often between late fall and early spring. Since your body never becomes immune to the virus, it’s possible to have many RSV infections throughout life—sometimes during the same season.

A dose of RSV is usually like having a bad cold. But sometimes, an RSV infection can lead to pneumonia and other problems in older people and babies. A 2023 study found that this type of infection is a frequent reason for babies and young children requiring hospitalization in Canada, peaking at around two months of age.

RSV is highly contagious, so it’s easily transmissible from person to person. It's hard to keep from catching RSV—but you can lower the chances with good habits. Here’s what to know about how RSV spreads and what you can do to protect yourself. 

How does RSV Spread?

RSV spreads like the common cold. It’s transmitted by infected individuals through respiratory secretions, including saliva and mucus. So an infected person can transfer it to others when they cough, sneeze, talk, or share food or drinks.

The virus can survive for several hours on hard surfaces, such as doorknobs and countertops. Infected adults can be contagious before they have symptoms and can remain contagious for up to 8 days. Kids can spread the virus for as long as 4 weeks. 

Here are some of the main ways RSV is contracted:

  • Touching your face. If your hands have come in contact with RSV, it can be spread by touching your nose, eyes, or mouth without first washing your hands.
  • Group living. Older adults living in nursing homes or other group environments have a higher risk of contracting RSV.
  • Daycares and school. Babies and young children who are in daycare centres are most likely to become infected, especially during peak season. Meanwhile, older kids may bring it home from school.
  • Crowds. If an infected person coughs or sneezes nearby, you can be exposed to RSV through droplets released into the air.
  • Sharing food. You can easily catch the virus by sharing food or drinks with an infected person.

Preventing the Spread of RSV

Since RSV is spread through contact with infected respiratory droplets, wearing a face mask around infected people is one of the best ways to prevent catching it. But there are several other lines of defence. 

Hand Hygiene: Your First Line of Defence

One of the best ways to protect yourself against respiratory infections—including RSV—is good hand hygiene. RSV can easily spread through touching, so hand washing is a critical way to minimize the spread. 

Wash your hands thoroughly and frequently. Washing with soap and water is best. (Looking to perfect your hand washing technique? Check out this video by WHO.)

Make it a habit to wash your hands:

  • After using a shopping cart, gas pump, or ATM
  • After handling money or using a keypad
  • Before you prepare food
  • Before you eat
  • Before and after you care for someone who is sick

If it’s not possible to wash your hands, hand sanitizer is a great alternative since it’s convenient and portable. Look for one with 60% ethyl alcohol or isopropanol. 

But hand sanitizer has limitations. While the alcohol in it kills many types of germs on your hands, it cannot get rid of all types of germs. Hand sanitizer often simply reduces the growth of germs rather than completely eliminating them. It also is less effective when hands are very dirty or greasy.

Immunization: The Shield Against RSV

Work has been underway on an RSV vaccine since the 1960s. While it has taken many decades to develop a safe and effective vaccine, there have been exciting breakthroughs in RSV vaccines recently. 

AbrysvoTM: a vaccine for babies and seniors

In January 2023, Health Canada approved a new bivalent vaccine called AbrysvoTM, which is made by Pfizer. In Canada, it is approved for use in pregnancy and for seniors aged 60 and over.

AbrysvoTM is a one-shot dose geared toward protecting two groups most severely affected by the respiratory syncytial virus (RSV): 

  • Newborns (who would receive antibodies through maternal immunization)
  • Canadians over 60

This new vaccine leverages a process called passive immunity. After receiving the vaccine, a pregnant woman develops antibodies against the vaccine, transferring them to her unborn baby through the placenta. Since young babies can’t make protective antibodies themselves until later in life, this transfer of antibodies offers them protection against RSV in their early life.

ArexvyTM: a vaccine for seniors (and maybe others)

In August 2023, Health Canada approved the first RSV vaccine for seniors. A single dose of ArexvyTM by drugmaker GSK was found to be nearly 83% effective at preventing RSV lung infections according to a 2023 study published in The New England Journal of Medicine.

On February 26, 2024, GSK announced it had asked Health Canada to expand the use of ArexvyTM to include 50 to 59-year-olds who are at increased risk of RSV. If approved, this would be the first vaccine available in Canada to help protect people in this age range.

BeyfortusTM: a treatment for babies

Beyond vaccination, there are also new possible treatments available. In April 2023, Health Canada approved BeyfortusTM, an RSV treatment for use in infants during their first RSV season, made by AstraZeneca and Sanofi. This monoclonal antibody injection is not a vaccination, but rather a treatment to slow down or stop the infection.

Stop the Spread: Other Steps 

Beyond hand washing and vaccination, there are steps to help prevent the spread of RSV. To slow down or stop the spread of this respiratory virus:

  • Avoid close contact with infected people
  • Skip sharing cups, bottles, or toys used by anyone sick
  • Stay home when you are sick
  • Cover your mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing
  • Sanitize frequently touched surfaces often, such as your phone

An RSV infection is often more of a nuisance than a danger. But for some people, especially young babies, the elderly, and immunocompromised individuals, it can become a life-threatening illness. Avoid bringing it home by wearing a face mask when necessary, washing your hands often, asking your doctor about immunization, and taking other common sense precautions. 

Looking for best practices to avoid the spread of respiratory infections? Check out more of our actionable guidance here

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