5 respiratory viruses unrelated to COVID-19

Posted on 1 June 2021

SARS-CoV-2 causes COVID-19 – but other respiratory viruses can also affect your breathing passages, causing cold and flu-like symptoms as well as shortness of breath and pneumonia.


  1. Influenza virus: One of the most common respiratory viruses is the influenza (“flu”) virus. This affects the nose, throat and lungs, and can lead to serious lung infections, such as pneumonia. Flu can last up to three weeks and if you show signs of a secondary infection, such as earache or difficulty breathing, you should consult your doctor. Aspirin, paracetamol or ibuprofen may help to relieve fever, muscle aches and headache, while decongestants may help to treat nasal congestion. Cough mixture may help clear up a dry cough, which is typical of flu. Don’t exercise for at least a week after recovering from flu as it can lead to inflammation of the heart muscle. Doctors recommend the annual flu vaccine for children older than six months.


  1. Rhinovirus: Up to 50% of colds are caused by one of the more than 100 rhinoviruses (“rhino” means nose). Rhinoviruses are most often spread by direct contact with infected secretions, for example, touching a handkerchief, door knob, or crockery/cutlery that a person with a cold has touched before, and then touching your nose or mouth. “Headache, tiredness and muscle aches can occur but colds aren’t typically associated with high fever, which should not reach more than 38.5°C,” says Dr Bianca Vermeulen, a GP at Mediclinic Midstream. Watery secretions thicken during the first day and become yellow or green in colour, due to the presence of white cells. The most effective and common home remedies for a cold include gargling with saltwater, rest, and staying hydrated.


  1. Human parainfluenza viruses (HPIVs): These commonly cause respiratory illnesses in infants and young children, although anyone can get HPIV-related illness. Symptoms may include fever, runny nose, and cough. Patients usually recover on their own. However, HPIVs can also cause more severe illness, such as croup or pneumonia. Despite the name, these viruses aren’t related to flu.


  1. Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV): “RSV causes bronchiolitis in children under the age of two and bronchopneumonia in older children” says Dr Angela Colquhoun, a paediatrician at Mediclinic Kloof. “Bronchiolitis is an acute virus-induced inflammation of the bronchioles [small airways] that causes airway inflammation and acute respiratory tract infection.” Initial signs of RSV are similar to mild cold symptoms and include congestion, a runny nose, fever, cough and sore throat. Very young infants may be irritable, fatigued and have breathing difficulties. While the disease is usually self-limiting, for high-risk infants and children, RSV can cause serious health problems that can result in hospitalisation – and for premature babies, RSV can be life-threatening. “RSV is viral and cannot be treated with antibiotics,” Dr Colquhoun stresses. “Physiotherapy can worsen distress and generally cortisone (even nebulised) doesn’t necessarily make a difference. The correct treatment is symptomatic but children that are having breathing difficulties need to be admitted and generally require high-flow oxygen.”


  1. Adenoviruses: This group of common viruses infect the lining of your eyes, airways and lungs, intestines, urinary tract, and nervous system. They can cause a wide range of illnesses, such as the common cold, fever, sore throat, acute bronchitis (inflammation of the airways of the lungs), pneumonia, conjunctivitis (pink eye), and acute gastroenteritis (inflammation of the stomach or intestines causing diarrhoea, vomiting, nausea and stomach pain). The symptoms of adenovirus infection depend on the site of infection and treatment typically consists of rest, fluids, or over-the-counter fever relievers. Antiviral agents are only used to treat severe adenovirus infections in people with suppressed or poor immune systems.


Remember that you can’t treat viruses with antibiotics, and as with SARS-CoV-2, one of the best things you can do to protect yourself is to break the viral transmission cycle by performing strict hand hygiene. This practice helps keep most viruses from getting into your body through your mouth or nose.

In the interest of our patients, in accordance with SA law and our commitment to expertise, Mediclinic cannot subscribe to the practice of online diagnosis. Please consult a medical professional for specific medical advice. If you have any major concerns, please see your doctor for an assessment. If you have any cause for concern, your GP will be able to direct you to the appropriate specialists.