Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is the most common single cause of respiratory hospitalisation of infants and is the second largest cause of lower respiratory infection mortality worldwide. In adults, RSV is an under-recognised cause of deterioration in health, particularly in frail elderly persons. Infection rates typically rise in late autumn and early winter causing bronchiolitis in infants, common colds in adults and insidious respiratory illness in the elderly. Virus detection methods optimised for use in children have low detection rate in adults, highlighting the need for better diagnostic tests. There are many vaccines under development, mostly based on the surface glycoprotein F which exists in two conformations (prefusion and postfusion). Much of the neutralising antibody appears to be to the prefusion form. Vaccines being developed include live attenuated, subunit, particle based and live vectored agents. Different vaccine strategies may be appropriate for different target populations: at-risk infants, school-age children, adult caregivers and the elderly. Antiviral drugs are in clinical trial and may find a place in disease management. RSV disease is one of the major remaining common tractable challenges in infectious diseases and the era of vaccines and antivirals for RSV is on the near horizon. © Author(s) (or their employer(s)) 2019. No commercial re-use. See rights and permissions. Published by BMJ.