By Dr Eugene Brink
The odds are that you’ve heard about rhinoviruses, but what are they exactly and should we be worried about them this winter?
Medical doctor Shravani Vundavalli says rhinovirus (rhin means “nose”) infections cause the common cold. “About 50% of common colds are caused by some kind of rhinovirus. There are more than 100 rhinoviruses and 100 enteroviruses that can infect people. Non-polio enteroviruses and rhinoviruses are very common viruses,” says the Wisconsin Department of Health Services. “People of any age can get enterovirus and rhinovirus infections, but infants, children, and teenagers are more likely than adults to become sick.”
Symptoms and seasonality
The State of Hawaii’s Department of Health notes that asymptomatic rhinovirus infection is uncommon. “Symptoms of the common cold caused by the rhinovirus include a sore throat, runny nose, coughing, sneezing, watery eyes, headaches and body aches. Infants and children may develop fever, and otitis media – infection in the middle ear. Infants may develop more severe illnesses such as croup, bronchiolitis and pneumonia. Rhinoviruses may trigger asthma attacks.”
Most people recover within about seven to 10 days. However, due to weakened immune systems, rhinovirus sufferers may develop asthma, or respiratory conditions may develop into a serious illness, such as bronchitis or pneumonia.
Although it can happen at any time of year, contracting rhinoviruses is most common in autumn and winter.
Transmission, treatment and prevention
Vundavalli says rhinoviruses easily pass from one person to another. “When a child with a rhinovirus infection has a runny nose, the liquid from her nose gets on to her hands and from there on to tables, toys and other places. Your child might touch the hands or skin of another child or toys that have the virus on them and then touch her own eyes or nose, infecting herself. She might also breathe in viruses that are in the air when a sick child sneezes or coughs.”
The Wisconsin Health Department says respiratory viruses spread primarily by respiratory droplets and aerosols that travel through the air when an infected person breathes, speaks, sings, coughs or sneezes. “They can also be spread by contact – either with the infected person (like kissing or shaking hands), or by touching contaminated surfaces and then touching your mouth, nose, or eyes. These viruses can survive on surfaces for many hours.”
According to Vundavalli, infants younger than three months should be kept away from children or adults who have colds. Parents should also ensure that their children wash their hands often, as this will lower the chances of them getting the virus.
The Wisconsin and Hawaii Departments of Health Services contend that there is no vaccine that offers protection against rhinoviruses and no specific treatments for illnesses caused by these viruses. Most people will recover on their own. Symptoms may be relieved by:
- Taking pain or fever medications (note: never give aspirin to children)
- Using a room humidifier or taking a hot shower to help ease a sore throat and cough
- Drinking lots of liquids to stay hydrated
- Staying home and resting
- Frequently disinfecting objects and surfaces and avoiding touching your face with unwashed hands.
Shravani Vundavalli, 2018, “Rhinovirus Infections”, https://www.healthychildren.org/English/health-issues/conditions/ear-nose-throat/Pages/Rhinovirus-Infections.aspx.
State of Hawaii Department of Health, 2021, “Rhinovirus (common cold)”, https://health.hawaii.gov/docd/disease_listing/rhinovirus/.
Wisconsin Department of Health Services, 2021, “Rhinovirus and Enterovirus”, https://www.dhs.wisconsin.gov/disease/rhino-entero.htm.