Viral Respiratory Infection (VRI)

What is a viral respiratory infection (VRI)?

Viral respiratory infections (VRIs) include colds, the flu, and bronchiolitis.

Respiratory System
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"Respiratory" means something that affects the lungs and airways (breathing passages). VRIs may cause coughing, sneezing, runny noses, sore throats, or fever.

"Viral" means something that is caused by a virus. Viruses that cause VRIs include respiratory syncytial viruses (RSV), influenza viruses, parainfluenza viruses, adenoviruses, and rhinoviruses. Rhinoviruses are the viruses that cause the common cold.

VRIs are not caused by any of the following things, although the symptoms may be similar:

  • bacteria, such as group A streptococcus (Strep) or pertussis
  • medicines
  • other medical conditions

Symptoms of a VRI

A person with a VRI may have the following symptoms:

The person may also have a headache or sore muscles, or she may feel very tired.

In general, the symptoms start 1 to 2 days after the person catches the virus. They may last for 1 to 10 days, depending on which virus is causing the illness.

How a VRI is spread

VRIs are spread in the following ways:

  • by touching mucus from the nose or mouth of a person who has the virus
  • by touching soiled tissues or surfaces a person with the virus has touched
  • by touching the unwashed hands of a person with the virus

Anyone can get a VRI

People of all ages and backgrounds can get a VRI. Babies and toddlers tend to get RSV more often. This can cause a condition called bronchiolitis.

A VRI can be a serious illness for some people

For most people, a VRI is not a serious illness. People who get a VRI almost always get completely well. They do not have any long-term problems.

For some people, though, a VRI can be a serious illness. People who are more at risk from a VRI include the following:

  • babies
  • young children
  • people with an immune system problem
  • people who cannot care for themselves well, such as the disabled or elderly

These people may develop more serious complications, like pneumonia. They may get more severe symptoms than healthy people. People with severe symptoms may need to stay in the hospital for treatment to help with their breathing.

Treating a VRI

To treat a VRI in children and adults, you should do the following things:

  • Make sure the person gets plenty of rest.
  • Give the person lots of clear fluids to drink, such as water and apple juice. This will help make sure the person does not get dehydrated. "Dehydrated" means the person does not have enough fluid in her body. In the hospital, a person can be given fluids directly into the blood through an intravenous line (IV) if necessary.

A doctor may prescribe medicine to help the infected person breathe more easily. The doctor will probably not prescribe antibiotics. Because VRIs are caused by viruses, antibiotics usually will not help.

If your child has a VRI in the hospital

Your child may be placed in a single room and will not be able to visit the playroom until she is feeling better. Ask the Child Life Specialist to bring toys and supplies to your room. 

Hospital staff will be wearing a mask, eye protection, gloves, and gowns when they visit. Always wash your hands before and after touching your child and before leaving your child's room. Hospital staff should wash their hands as well.

If you or anyone else who has visited becomes ill with symptoms of a viral respiratory infection, let your child's doctor or nurse know. 

VRIs can be prevented with good hygiene and sometimes shots

Good handwashing can help people from catching or spreading a VRI. This is very important in hospitals, but it is true in other places as well.

To avoid spreading a VRI, you should also do the following things:

  • Always cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. Throw away the tissue. Then wash your hands.
  • Do not visit the hospital when you are ill with symptoms of a VRI. Ask other family members and friends to do the same.

RSV shots

Some premature or sick babies are at high risk from RSV. They can take a medicine that can help make the symptoms of RSV infection shorter and less severe.

For more information, please see Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV).

Flu shots

Every autumn, the flu shot is offered as a way to prevent influenza (flu) infection. Getting a flu shot is easy. It should help make sure you and your child do not catch the flu that year. Ask your doctor if your child can have the flu shot.

The flu shot can prevent flu, but not infections from other respiratory viruses.

For more information, please see Influenza (Flu).

Key points

  • Viral respiratory infection (VRI) is a name for several types of infections of the lungs and airways.
  • VRIs are caused by different viruses.
  • VRIs spread through contact with mucus from the mouth or nose.
  • VRI can be a serious illness for people who are already ill or weakened in some other way.
  • Good hygiene practices, including handwashing and covering the mouth and nose when coughing, can help prevent the spread of VRI.

Laurie Streitenberger, RN, BSc, CIC
Anne Matlow, MD, FRCPC