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Overview of Viral Respiratory Tract Infections in Children


Brenda L. Tesini

, MD, University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry

Reviewed/Revised Jul 2021 | Modified Sep 2022
Topic Resources

Viral respiratory tract infections affect the nose, throat, and airways and may be caused by any of several different viruses.

Children develop on average six viral respiratory tract infections each year.

Viral respiratory tract infections are typically divided into

Children sometimes have infections involving both the upper and lower respiratory tracts.

Causes of Viral Respiratory Infections

Most often, viral respiratory tract infections spread when children's hands come into contact with nasal secretions from an infected person. These secretions contain viruses. When the children touch their nose or eyes, the viruses gain entry and produce a new infection. Less often, infections spread when children breathe air containing droplets that were coughed or sneezed out by an infected person.

For various reasons, nasal or respiratory secretions from children with viral respiratory tract infections contain more viruses than those from infected adults. This increased output of viruses, along with typically lesser attention to hygiene, makes children more likely to spread their infection to others. The possibility of transmission is further enhanced when many children are gathered together, such as in child care centers and schools. Contrary to what people may think, other factors, such as becoming chilled, wet, or tired, do not cause colds or increase a child's susceptibility to infection.

Symptoms of Viral Respiratory Infections

When viruses invade cells of the respiratory tract, they trigger inflammation and production of mucus. This situation leads to nasal congestion, a runny nose, scratchy throat, and cough, which may last up to 14 days. Some children may continue to cough for weeks after the upper respiratory infection has resolved. Fever, with a temperature as high as 101 to 102° F (about 38.3 to 38.9° C), is common in young children or those with influenza. The child's temperature may even rise to 104° F (40° C).

Other typical symptoms in children include decreased appetite, lethargy, and a general feeling of illness (malaise). Headaches and body aches develop, particularly with influenza. Infants and young children are usually not able to communicate their specific symptoms and just appear cranky and uncomfortable.

Complications of viral respiratory tract infections

Because newborns and young infants prefer to breathe through their nose, even moderate nasal congestion can create difficulty breathing. Nasal congestion leads to feeding problems as well, because infants cannot breathe while suckling from the breast or bottle. Because infants are unable to spit out mucus that they cough up, they often gag and choke.

Diagnosis of Viral Respiratory Infections

  • A doctor's evaluation

Doctors and parents recognize respiratory tract infections by their typical symptoms. Generally, otherwise healthy children with mild upper respiratory tract symptoms do not need to see a doctor unless they have trouble breathing, are not drinking, or have a fever for more than a day or two.

X-rays of the neck and chest may be taken in children who have difficulty breathing, stridor, or wheezing or if the doctor can hear congestion in the lungs. Blood tests and tests of respiratory secretions are rarely helpful.

Prevention of Viral Respiratory Infections

  • Good hygiene

  • Vaccination for influenza

The best preventive measure is practicing good hygiene. An ill child and the people in the household should wash their hands frequently. In general, the more intimate physical contact (such as hugging, snuggling, or bed sharing) that takes place with an ill child, the greater the risk of spreading the infection to other family members. Parents must balance this risk with the need to comfort an ill child. Children should stay home from school or child care facilities until the fever is gone and they feel well enough to attend.

Influenza Influenza (Flu) Influenza (flu) is a viral infection of the lungs and airways with one of the influenza viruses. It causes a fever, runny nose, sore throat, cough, headache, muscle aches (myalgias), and a general... read more is the only viral respiratory infection preventable by vaccination. All children age 6 months or older should receive a yearly vaccination, as should all adults (see also influenza vaccination Influenza Vaccine The influenza virus vaccine helps protect against influenza. Two types of influenza virus, type A and type B, regularly cause seasonal epidemics of influenza in the United States. There are... read more ). Vaccination is particularly important for children and adults who have certain disorders, such as heart or lung disease (including cystic fibrosis and asthma), diabetes, kidney failure, and sickle cell disease. Additionally, children who have a weakened immune system, including children with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection and those undergoing chemotherapy, should receive the vaccine.

Treatment of Viral Respiratory Infections

  • Rest and fluids

  • Drugs for fever and pain

Antibiotics are not necessary and do not help treat viral respiratory tract infections. Children with respiratory tract infections need additional rest and should maintain normal fluid intake. Acetaminophen or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen, can be given for fever and aches. School-aged children may take a nonprescription (over-the-counter) decongestant for bothersome nasal congestion, although the drug often does not help. Infants and younger children are particularly sensitive to the side effects of decongestants and may experience agitation, confusion, hallucinations, lethargy, and rapid heart rate and should never take these drugs.

In infants and young children, congestion may be relieved somewhat by using a cool-mist vaporizer to humidify the air and by suctioning the mucus from the nose with a rubber suction bulb.

There are antiviral drugs for influenza Antiviral drugs Influenza (flu) is a viral infection of the lungs and airways with one of the influenza viruses. It causes a fever, runny nose, sore throat, cough, headache, muscle aches (myalgias), and a general... read more that can be used in children. However, these drugs work only if taken within the first day or two after symptoms begin, and they shorten the duration of fever and symptoms only by a day or so and are not often used in otherwise healthy children.

Drugs Mentioned In This Article

Generic Name Select Brand Names
7T Gummy ES, Acephen, Aceta, Actamin, Adult Pain Relief, Anacin Aspirin Free, Apra, Children's Acetaminophen, Children's Pain & Fever , Comtrex Sore Throat Relief, ED-APAP, ElixSure Fever/Pain, Feverall, Genapap, Genebs, Goody's Back & Body Pain, Infantaire, Infants' Acetaminophen, LIQUID PAIN RELIEF, Little Fevers, Little Remedies Infant Fever + Pain Reliever, Mapap, Mapap Arthritis Pain, Mapap Infants, Mapap Junior, M-PAP, Nortemp, Ofirmev, Pain & Fever , Pain and Fever , PAIN RELIEF , PAIN RELIEF Extra Strength, Panadol, PediaCare Children's Fever Reducer/Pain Reliever, PediaCare Children's Smooth Metls Fever Reducer/Pain Reliever, PediaCare Infant's Fever Reducer/Pain Reliever, Pediaphen, PHARBETOL, Plus PHARMA, Q-Pap, Q-Pap Extra Strength, Silapap, Triaminic Fever Reducer and Pain Reliever, Triaminic Infant Fever Reducer and Pain Reliever, Tylenol, Tylenol 8 Hour, Tylenol 8 Hour Arthritis Pain, Tylenol 8 Hour Muscle Aches & Pain, Tylenol Arthritis Pain, Tylenol Children's, Tylenol Children's Pain+Fever, Tylenol CrushableTablet, Tylenol Extra Strength, Tylenol Infants', Tylenol Infants Pain + Fever, Tylenol Junior Strength, Tylenol Pain + Fever, Tylenol Regular Strength, Tylenol Sore Throat, XS No Aspirin, XS Pain Reliever
Advil, Advil Children's, Advil Children's Fever, Advil Infants', Advil Junior Strength, Advil Migraine, Caldolor, Children's Ibuprofen, ElixSure IB, Genpril , Ibren , IBU, Midol, Midol Cramps and Body Aches, Motrin, Motrin Children's, Motrin IB, Motrin Infants', Motrin Junior Strength, Motrin Migraine Pain, PediaCare Children's Pain Reliever/Fever Reducer IB, PediaCare Infants' Pain Reliever/Fever Reducer IB, Samson-8
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