What Is Adenovirus?

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sick child, adenovirus, cold symptoms,fever, coughs, sore throats, diarrhea, and pink eye, Cedars-Sinai
Adenovirus is a group of common viruses that can cause cold-like symptoms.

We’re all familiar with the saying, “If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck.”

So, if it looks like a cold or the flu, it is, right? Well, maybe not—and here’s why.

Respiratory symptoms are most common, and they really can look and feel a lot like a cold or the flu—especially if it's flu season. Click To Tweet

Meet adenovirus. The term refers to a family of viruses that you’ve probably been exposed to at some point in your life. These tough-as-nails viruses really get around.

Since adenovirus is less familiar than colds or the flu, we talked to Dr. Jonathan Grein, director of Hospital Epidemiology, and Dr. Joanne Belgarde, a specialist in internal medicine and pediatrics.

If adenovirus is a family of viruses, how do you describe its family members?

Dr. Grein: There are more than 60 different types of adenoviruses. They can cause a variety of illnesses, like these:

  • Bronchitis
  • Pneumonia
  • Sore throat
  • Croup
  • Conjunctivitis or pink eye
  • Inflammation of stomach or intestines
  • Less commonly, urinary tract or bladder infections

What’s most challenging about identifying and treating adenoviruses?

Dr. Grein: Respiratory symptoms are most common, and they really can look and feel a lot like a cold or the flu—especially if it’s flu season. But adenovirus is with us year-round.

That said, the way we manage, treat, and prevent adenovirus is really very similar to the way we treat colds and flu. For otherwise healthy people, distinguishing between a cold and adenovirus isn’t so important.


Read: Is It a Cold or the Flu?


But in certain settings or if you have a weakened immune system or chronic medical conditions, it can matter that we identify adenovirus. Symptoms are usually mild in relatively healthy people, but adenovirus in children or the elderly can be quite severe, even deadly.

How does adenovirus spread?

Dr. Grein: Like colds and flus, adenovirus infections usually spread through respiratory secretions when someone coughs or sneezes.

But these stubborn viruses are tougher than cold and flu viruses: They can live for a long time on surfaces like doorknobs or towels and they are resistant to many common disinfectants. This makes them very easy to spread from one person to another.

“Washing your hands is still the most important way to protect yourself.”

Adenoviruses can also be spread through fecal contamination—for instance, when diapers are changed or in swimming pools.

Adenovirus outbreaks tend to occur more often in indoor environments like nursing facilities or in schools or military barracks.

What should we do to protect ourselves?

Dr. Grein: This will sound a lot like cold and flu protection advice, but washing your hands is still the most important way to protect yourself.

Adenovirus is easily spread by our hands to our eyes, nose, and mouth, so thoroughly washing with soap and water for 20 seconds—especially before and after touching your face or after using the bathroom—can really reduce your risk.

Just like with the cold and flu, avoid close contact with those who are sick. If you are sick and have to sneeze or cough, do so into the crook of your elbow to keep your hands clean.

“Like colds and flus, adenovirus infections usually spread through respiratory secretions when someone coughs or sneezes.”

In the event of an outbreak at your child’s school or daycare, should you keep them home?

Dr. Belgarde: As long as your child is healthy without any immunodeficiencies, there is no need to keep them out of school during an outbreak since the viral disease ultimately resolves on its own without treatment and without long-term complications.

But if your child suffers from a weakened immune system, it would be best to keep them out of school and at home until the outbreak has been appropriately managed.

Is there a specific treatment for children versus adults?

Dr. Belgarde: Treatment for children and adults is the same. The body’s immune system fights the viral infection and it typically resolves in 5-7 days.

Antibiotics do not treat viral infections. Treatment typically consists of supportive care, such as rest, fluids, or over-the-counter fever relievers. Antiviral agents are only used to treat severe adenovirus infections in people with suppressed or low immune systems.

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