Dr Mark Rosenthal

MD MB ChB FRCP FRCPCH BSc

Consultant in Paediatric Respiratory Medicine

also specialist in Food Allergies & Disorders of Sleep

A | A | A

T: 0207 351 8832

E: s.harvey@rbht.nhs.uk

A:The Royal Brompton Hospital, London, SW3 6NP

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When we talk about respiratory infections, we often discuss viral symptoms or virus related symptoms. What does this mean and what are the symptoms that respiratory viruses can cause?

Viral Related Symptoms

What is a Virus?

A virus is a type of germ. Viruses are tiny, microscopic packages of DNA (or a similar molecule called RNA) wrapped up in a protein coat. Viruses aren’t really alive in the same way as bacteria are, but they can cause the same kinds of problems. A virus needs to get into a living cell in order to make more viruses, but this can cause problems for their hosts. Many common illnesses such as the flu and colds are caused by viruses. Viruses can also be responsible for more serious infections, including viral pneumonia and SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome).

Viral vs. Bacterial

Infections aren’t always caused by viruses. Other kinds of germs, such as bacteria and fungi can cause problems too. Most human infections are caused by viruses or bacteria, but it can be difficult to tell which type of germ is causing problems. For example, both bacteria and viruses can cause pneumonia with very similar symptoms. It can be important to know if your infection is viral or bacterial as it can tell us which types of treatments to use. Antibiotics can only help if the infection is bacterial as they won’t have any effect on viruses. Often, the only way to know for sure if an infection is viral or bacterial is to run some tests in the lab. However, your doctor may be able to tell if your infection is more likely to be viral or bacterial by considering your symptoms.

Viral Related Symptoms

Lots of different viruses can infect people and cause all kinds of different symptoms. The most common symptoms of a viral infection in the respiratory tract are:

  • Runny nose
  • Nasal congestion
  • Sneezing
  • Coughing
  • High temperature or fever
  • Aches

Other symptoms can also appear, especially if the infection spreads to other parts of the body. For example, a viral infection that starts in the nose could spread into the ears and cause earache and balance problems.

Viral Symptoms and Contagion

Many of these viral related symptoms can actually help to spread the virus that is causing the infection. When you cough or sneeze, it can create tiny airborne droplets that each contain many copies of the virus. If someone else breathes in these droplets, then the virus will try to infect them too.

Having a runny nose can also make it easier for the virus to spread, especially when children haven’t learned to wipe or blow their nose yet. If you rub your runny nose and then touch objects such as plates, door handles or toys, then it’s easy for other people to come in contact with the viruses you’re leaving behind. The virus won’t cause problems if they wash their hands quickly, but if they touch their own eyes, nose or mouth first then they could become infected.

Covering mouths when coughing or sneezing, using tissues to wipe noses, and washing hands regularly can all help to stop the spread of respiratory infections.

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