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Overview of Viral Respiratory Infections

By

Brenda L. Tesini

, MD, University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry

Last full review/revision Sep 2021
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Viral infections commonly affect the upper or lower respiratory tract. Although respiratory infections Respiratory infections Categorizing viral infections by the organ system most commonly affected (eg, lungs, gastrointestinal tract, skin, liver, central nervous system, mucous membranes) can be clinically useful,... read more can be classified by the causative virus (eg, influenza Influenza Influenza is a viral respiratory infection causing fever, coryza, cough, headache, and malaise. Mortality is possible during seasonal epidemics, particularly among high-risk patients (eg, those... read more ), they are generally classified clinically according to syndrome (eg, the common cold Common Cold The common cold is an acute, usually afebrile, self-limited viral infection causing upper respiratory symptoms, such as rhinorrhea, cough, and sore throat. Diagnosis is clinical. Handwashing... read more , bronchiolitis Bronchiolitis Bronchiolitis is an acute viral infection of the lower respiratory tract affecting infants 24 months and is characterized by respiratory distress, wheezing, and/or crackles. Diagnosis is suspected... read more , croup Croup Croup is acute inflammation of the upper and lower respiratory tracts most commonly caused by parainfluenza virus type 1 infection. It is characterized by a brassy, barking cough and inspiratory... read more Croup , pneumonia Overview of Pneumonia Pneumonia is acute inflammation of the lungs caused by infection. Initial diagnosis is usually based on chest x-ray and clinical findings. Causes, symptoms, treatment, preventive measures, and... read more ). Although specific pathogens commonly cause characteristic clinical manifestations (eg, rhinovirus typically causes the common cold, respiratory syncytial virus Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) and Human Metapneumovirus Infections Respiratory syncytial virus and human metapneumovirus infections cause seasonal lower respiratory tract disease, particularly in infants and young children. Disease may be asymptomatic, mild... read more [RSV] typically causes bronchiolitis), each can cause many of the viral respiratory syndromes (see Table: Causes of Common Viral Respiratory Syndromes Causes of Common Viral Respiratory Syndromes Viral infections commonly affect the upper or lower respiratory tract. Although respiratory infections can be classified by the causative virus (eg, influenza), they are generally classified... read more ).

Severity of viral respiratory illness varies widely; severe disease is more likely in older patients and infants. Morbidity may result directly from viral infection or may be indirect, due to exacerbation of underlying cardiopulmonary conditions or bacterial superinfection of the lung, paranasal sinuses, or middle ear.

Diagnosis of Viral Respiratory Infections

  • Typically, clinical evaluation and local epidemiology

  • Sometimes diagnostic testing

Viral respiratory infections are typically diagnosed clinically based on symptoms and local epidemiology. For patient care, diagnosing the syndrome is usually sufficient; identification of a specific pathogen is rarely necessary.

Diagnostic testing should typically be reserved for the following:

  • Situations in which knowing the specific pathogen affects clinical management

  • Epidemiologic surveillance (ie, identifying and determining the cause of an outbreak)

Pathogen identification can be important in the rare instances when specific antiviral therapy is contemplated. Currently, such instances are limited to early or severe influenza Diagnosis Influenza is a viral respiratory infection causing fever, coryza, cough, headache, and malaise. Mortality is possible during seasonal epidemics, particularly among high-risk patients (eg, those... read more or RSV infection in severely immunocompromised patients Treatment Respiratory syncytial virus and human metapneumovirus infections cause seasonal lower respiratory tract disease, particularly in infants and young children. Disease may be asymptomatic, mild... read more . Identifying the specific pathogen, (particularly the influenza virus or RSV in hospitalized patients or patients residing in a facility) may also be important for identifying and containing potential outbreaks.

Rapid point-of-care antigen-based diagnostic tests are readily available for influenza and RSV but have poorer sensitivity than laboratory tests. Point-of-care tests are typically reserved for cases when clinical diagnosis is uncertain and

  • Antiviral therapy is being considered.

  • Identification of the viral pathogen would prevent additional evaluation for or treatment of a bacterial infection.

Polymerase chain reaction (PCR)-based detection of viral pathogens in a multiplex panel (or individually for influenza and RSV) is available in many clinical laboratories. These tests are rapid and more sensitive than point-of-care tests and, when available, are preferred for clinical purposes.

Cell culture or serologic tests are slower than PCR tests but may be useful for epidemiologic surveillance.

Treatment of Viral Respiratory Infections

  • Supportive

  • Sometimes antiviral drugs

Treatment of viral respiratory infections is usually supportive.

Antibacterial drugs are ineffective against viral pathogens, and prophylaxis against secondary bacterial infections is not recommended. Antibiotics should be given only when secondary bacterial infections develop. In patients with chronic lung disease, antibiotics may be given with less restriction.

Some patients continue to cough for weeks after resolution of an upper respiratory infection; these symptoms may lessen with use of an inhaled bronchodilator or corticosteroids.

In some cases, antiviral drugs are useful:

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