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Overview of Viral Respiratory Infections
Viral infections commonly affect the upper or lower respiratory tract. Although these infections can be classified by the causative virus (eg, influenza), they are generally classified clinically according to syndrome (eg, the common cold, bronchiolitis, croup). Although specific pathogens commonly cause characteristic clinical manifestations (eg, rhinovirus typically causes the common cold, respiratory syncytial virus [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
Severity of viral respiratory illness varies widely; severe disease is more likely in the elderly 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.
Detection of viral pathogens by PCR, cell culture, or serologic tests is generally too slow to be useful for patient care but is useful for epidemiologic surveillance (ie, identifying and determining the cause of an outbreak). More rapid diagnostic tests are available for influenza and RSV, but the utility of these tests for routine care is not clear; they should be reserved for situations in which pathogen-specific diagnosis affects clinical management. Management decisions are usually based on clinical data and epidemiology.
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.
Aspirin should not be used in patients who are ≤ 18 yr and have respiratory infections because Reye syndrome is a risk.
Some patients continue to cough for weeks after resolution of an URI; these symptoms may lessen with use of an inhaled bronchodilator or corticosteroids.
In some cases, antiviral drugs are useful. Amantadine, rimantadine, oseltamivir, and zanamivir are effective for influenza. Ribavirin, a guanosine analog that inhibits replication of many RNA and DNA viruses, may be considered for severely immunocompromised patients with lower respiratory tract infection due to RSV. Palivizumab, a monoclonal antibody to RSV fusion protein, is being used to prevent RSV infection in certain high-risk infants.
Drug NameSelect Trade
AspirinNo US brand name
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