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A wide variety of viruses, containing both RNA and DNA, cause ARIs. The most important viruses are listed in Table 1. Rhinoviruses are the most frequent cause of the common cold. They circulate all year, along with the other viruses listed in the table, and are the major cause for the major autumn increase in respiratory illness. Multiple types of virus cause this rhinovirus outbreak, which is different from the typical outbreak of an infectious disease, in which only one viral type is responsible. It is thought that children are responsible for spreading the different types of virus in schools, and that they are then introduced into families.
Coronaviruses are also important agents of the common cold. Scientists have had difficulty in the laboratory working with these viruses, and the usual methods of virus detection have not yielded complete results. For this reason, less is known about them than the others listed in Table 1. There are at least two major types of coronaviruses, each of which appears to occur over a limited period of time, usually in winter and spring.
While significantly different virologically, parainfluenza viruses and RSVs will be considered together because of similarities in overall behavior. There are four types of parainfluenza viruses. Parainfluenza type 4 is an agent that is sporadic in occurrence, producing little more than the common cold. As such, its activity is rarely described except when the virus is encountered as part of a comprehensive investigation in which a variety of different agents are sought. In contrast, whenever the severe respiratory illnesses causing hospitalization of young children are studied, parainfluenza types 1, 2, and 3, and RSV, are identified. Both types 1 and 2 most typically cause laryngotracheobronchitis, more commonly called croup. First infection with these viruses is essentially universal by three to four years of age, and, based on the number of infants and young children requiring medical attention, it can be estimated that well over 10 percent of children first encountering these viruses require medical attention specific for this syndrome. Like all respiratory viruses, these agents reinfect repeatedly throughout life, with later infections becoming milder or asymptomatic. Parainfluenza type 3 does not produce this syndrome, but rather one of pneumonia, often with features of obstruction. Again, first infection is universal at an early age, but only occasionally results in the most severe of the potential manifestations of the disease. Reinfection with or without symptoms also recurs throughout life.
RSV was formerly thought to comprise only one viral type, but recent work has identified two groups that are not as distinctively different as the types of parainfluenza virus. There are suggestions that group A viruses are more virulent in the illnesses they produce and more frequent in occurrence, but these differences are not dramatic. RSV produces what is undoubtedly the most severe respiratory illness in a small proportion of young children infected for the first time in life. The typical syndrome is usually bronchiolitis, but pneumonia is sometimes diagnosed as well. Because of the severity of this illness, a vaccine to prevent RSV has been identified as a high priority for development. The purpose of the vaccine would not be to prevent the disease, since absolute immunity is not possible, but rather to modify the disease expression so that initial illness becomes similar in characteristics to a reinfection.
Adenoviruses are different in many respects from the viruses described above. First, they are DNA viruses, and as such have been examined in terms of issues such as the induction of tumors in humans. The ability of these viruses to produce tumors has been demonstrated in laboratory animals, but never in humans. The viruses themselves are divided into many types that produce distinctly different syndromes. While childhood pneumonia does occur, it is not a major public health problem except in East Asia, where reports of epidemics have come from North China. Types 4, 7, and others produce a syndrome called acute respiratory disease, which becomes epidemic in military recruits worldwide. A vaccine has been developed, but because of the limited target population, maintaining supplies has been an issue.
There are nonviral agents that cause acute respiratory infections, but not with the same frequency as the viruses, at least not in developed countries. Legionella pneumophila causes Legionaires' disease, a bacterial pneumonia, sporadically in adults, and reported outbreaks have been associated with contaminated water supplies in hospitals and other institutions. Chlamydia pneumoniae causes lower respiratory illnesses in a small proportion of older children and adults. However, the most important role of this agent may be as a risk factor for development of atherosclerosis. Evidence for the association of the infection with coronary artery disease is not yet conclusive.
Author Info: ARNOLD MONTO, The Gale Group Inc., Macmillan Reference USA, New York, Gale Encyclopedia of Public Health, 2002This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to replace the care and information received from your healthcare provider. Please consult a healthcare professional with any health concerns you may have.
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