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By Casey De Farria
Casey De Farria
01 Aug, 2022

The low-down on 5 of the most common respiratory viruses

It can be hard to wrap your head around the term ‘respiratory viruses’ – you may have only just learned about RSV, and are now hearing things like ‘parainfluenza’ or ‘adenovirus’. Now you are wondering… are these new? Should I be worried?

In a nutshell, respiratory viruses cause illnesses that affect the nose, throat, and breathing passages including the lungs – these viruses are common, not new, and are the usual suspects when it comes to mild colds and the like. Recent illness this winter has everyone (understandably) on high alert and, in turn, has shed light on the different respiratory viruses commonly found.

Here is a great table from NSW Health, that breaks down 5 of the most common respiratory viruses, including their symptoms, the most at-risk groups, and possible complications linked to each.

So… How are respiratory viruses spread?

  • Droplets – breathing in droplets when an infected person breathes, coughs, or sneezes
  • Contaminated surfaces – touching a surface or object that has been contaminated by an infected person.

What are the common symptoms?

This depends on the virus in question, as well as the person infected – people with the same virus won’t necessarily experience the same symptoms!

The symptoms that are most common to respiratory viruses include fever, cough, runny nose, sneezing sore throat, headache, muscle aches, fatigue, and feeling generally unwell.

Some little ones may get very unwell and this is usually due to complications from worsening infection, as mentioned in the table above. Here is another great break down from NSW Health, detailing each complication (heading linked to fact sheets for more);

  • Bronchiolitis – swelling and congestion in the small airways (bronchioles) of the lungs causing a bubbling sound when listening to breathing. This occurs most commonly in young children and children under the age of 1. This can make it harder to breathe, drink and eat.
  • Bronchitis – swelling and congestion of the large airways (bronchi) of the lungs causing a cough with phlegm and shortness of breath that can take weeks to resolve.  This can occur in older children and adults.
  • Croup – swelling of the upper airway including the voice box (larynx) and windpipe (trachea) making a person work harder to breathe, especially at night. It commonly presents with a barking cough that starts after a child has had a mild cold for a few days. Most likely to occur in children.
  • Pneumonia – infection and swelling of the lungs which has symptoms including a cough with phlegm, fever, chills and difficulty breathing. Can affect people of all age groups, but is most severe in children under the age of 1, children and older people.
  • Acute Sinusitis – infection and swelling of the sinuses causing pressure and pain in the face. Most likely to occur in adults and older children.
  • Acute Ear Infections (Otitis Media) – infection of the middle ear causing pain and fever. Most likely to occurin children who will often pull or hold the affected ear.
  • Hoarse Voice (Laryngitis) – swelling of the voice box and vocal cords which causes temporary loss of voice. Can affect people of all age groups.

The incubation period (how long symptoms take to develop), and your infectious period (how long you are infectious), vary depending on which respiratory virus you have. Usually, though, most people develop symptoms between 1 to 10 days after exposure. You are usually most contagious in the first few days that you have symptoms. However, sometimes people are infectious a few days before their symptoms start. While you continue to have a fever or generally feel unwell, you are still infectious.

What do I do if my little one has a respiratory virus?

Although most respiratory illnesses can be managed at home with rest, keeping hydrated, and pain relief when needed (for comfort, not solely to treat fever) – it is important to look out for any red flags and to seek urgent medical attention if your child displays any of these.

Take your little one to the GP if you think they have any of the above-listed complications, show signs of any other concerns/complications, or if you are worried for any reason.

TIP: Antibiotics do not help as they have no effect on viruses, and can be harmful if taken incorrectly.

Is there any way to prevent my child from getting a respiratory illness?

With kids, comes sickness. This is inevitable. There is no magic solution or guaranteed answer – but there are important measures to be taken, to help stop the spread of respiratory viruses;

  • Wear face masks (remember though that this is not recommended for kids under the age of 2)
  • Wash hands regularly, and as soon as possible after sneezing or coughing. Use soap and water and wash for 20 seconds. Use an alcohol-based hand sanitiser if you can’t wash your hands with soap and water.
  • Avoid sharing cups, glasses and cutlery with people who are sick. Regularly wash or wipe down utensils and surfaces with a household cleaner that contains soap or detergent.
  • Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when coughing and sneezing, or use your elbow. Don’t use your hands. Dispose of tissues straight away in a bin.
  • Stay at home if you feel unwell so you don’t pass your virus to other people.
  • Keep children away from school and early childhood education and care (ECEC) settings while they have symptoms. This includes childcare, long day care, family day care and outside school hours care.
  • Make sure that everyone is up to date with their vaccinations.

Resources

NSW Health Respiratory viruses fact sheet

Please visit the above page and the links in the blog above, for further reading and information on each complication of respiratory viruses. Please note that the flu and COVID are not included in this article, but you can click on the fact sheets below to find out more;

Influenza Fact Sheet

COVID-19 Fact Sheet

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