Respiratory Viruses

Respiratory viruses affect your breathing passages, causing cold and flu-like symptoms as well as shortness of breath and pneumonia.

What are respiratory viruses?
How are respiratory viruses spread?
What are the signs and symptoms of respiratory viruses?
What are the possible tests to diagnose respiratory viruses?
What are the possible treatments for respiratory viruses?

What are respiratory viruses?

Respiratory viruses include a large number of common viruses that may cause both upper respiratory tract symptoms (the vocal chords and above) and lower respiratory tract symptoms (below the vocal chords).

One of the most common respiratory viruses is the influenza virus, also known as the ‘flu’. The flu virus affects the nose, throat and lungs, and can lead to serious lung infections, such as pneumonia.

Other common types of respiratory viruses include rhinovirus/enterovirus, parainfluenza, respiratory syncytial virus and adenovirus.

How are respiratory viruses spread?

Respiratory viruses are spread by:

  • Direct contact with a person who has a virus – particles in the air can spread through coughing or sneezing
  • Indirect contact with a person who has a virus – particles can remain on items infected people have touched, like tissues and public transport railings as well as being spread through the air.

Some people are more likely to get respiratory viruses, including:

  • Children and infants – children are often in contact with other infected children at school and daycare, they may forget to wash their hands regularly (regular hand washing reduces the spread of disease)
  • Older adults
  • People with heart or lung disease
  • People with a weakened immune system
  • Smokers.

What are the signs and symptoms of respiratory viruses?

Some of the most common respiratory virus symptoms include: 

  • Aching muscles and joints
  • Cough and sputum
  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Runny nose
  • Sneezing
  • Sore throat
  • Tiredness Unfortunately most treatment for respiratory viruses is supportive and occasionally complications can occur.

Common complications of respiratory viruses include:

  • Bronchiolitis – inflammation of small air passages in the lungs
  • Croup – inflammation and swelling of the voice box (larynx), the windpipe (trachea) and the airways (bronchi)
  • Pneumonia – lung infection with inflammation
  • Sinusitis – infection or inflammation of the sinuses.

Very rare complications include

  • Encephalitis – inflammation of the brain
  • Meningitis – inflammation of the lining of the brain and spinal cord.

In many cases, you will catch a virus but not show any symptoms for several days. This is called the incubation period, and it can be anywhere from one to 10 days. Even without symptoms, you can be contagious and pass the virus on to others.

Respiratory viruses tend to be most contagious when you first start to show symptoms, but you can still be contagious after you have recovered from the virus.

What are the possible tests to diagnose respiratory viruses?

If you have symptoms of a respiratory virus, visit your doctor for a full diagnosis. Your doctor will take some tests to determine whether you have a virus or bacterial infection. In some cases, your doctor may take a swab from your nose or throat.

What are the possible treatments for respiratory viruses?

If you have a respiratory viruses, you are advised to:

  • Drink plenty of water
  • Rest for several days
  • Take pain relief as directed.

If you have Influenza, your doctor may suggest an antiviral medication. It’s important to be aware that antibiotics are used to treat bacterial infections, not viral infections, so they won’t help treat respiratory viruses. In most cases, viruses clear up in a couple of weeks.

Visit your doctor if your symptoms get worse or if you are experiencing:

  • Confusion
  • Dehydration
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Dizziness
  • Vomiting.
General advice about respiratory viruses

If you or someone you know has a respiratory virus, here’s how you can ensure a healthy recovery and most importantly reduce the spread of infection:

  • Clean all surfaces and utensils – avoid sharing any items with other people
  • Cough hygiene reduces droplet spread
  • Take time off work or school – respect your colleagues and rest until your symptoms have improved
  • Wash your hands regularly – prevent the spread of germs
  • Wear a mask in public places including hospitals.

Get regular vaccinations – the flu vaccine helps reduce the chance of getting the flu, so speak to your doctor if you have any questions. Vaccination improves herd immunity.