What Is Parainfluenza?

Child sick in bed.
Dad checks on daughter who is sick in bed. Rebecca Nelson/Taxi/Getty Images

Have you or your child been diagnosed with parainfluenza but you aren't sure what it is? This overview will help clear up the confusion. 

The Basics

Parainfluenza is a very common virus that can cause both upper and lower respiratory infections including colds, bronchiolitis, bronchitis, croup and pneumonia. Despite the name, it's not linked to the flu because it is not caused by the influenza virus.


Symptoms vary depending on the individual. Parainfluenza is typically most severe in young infants, people with weak immune systems and older adults.

Common Parainfluenza Symptoms

Although symptoms can vary, the most common symptoms of parainfluenza include:

While you may not experience all of these symptoms when you have parainfluenza, it is likely that you will have several of them. If you or your child are having significant difficulty breathing, seek medical attention right away. 

Treatment Options

Treatment for parainfluenza depends on the symptoms that come with it. For most adults and older children, symptoms are typically similar to those of a cold and it requires no treatment. Parainfluenza is a virus that will go away on it's own just like the common cold.

However, it can cause more serious problems in young children. If a child (or even adult) is wheezing, an inhaler or nebulizer may be prescribed to help make breathing easier. If the healthcare provider notices signs of croup, oral steroids may be prescribed. If the illness leads to a secondary infection of pneumonia, antibiotics may be needed.

Your health care provider will determine what treatment is needed based on your symptoms, physical exam and health history.

When to See the Doctor

Most people with parainfluenza infections will not need to see a doctor. However, if you or a loved one develops signs of difficulty breathing, seek medical attention right away. If your child under 18 months old has any signs of a respiratory infection, contact his pediatrician to determine if he needs to be seen.

The Bottom Line

Parainfluenza infections are a lot more common than we all realize but are typically not a reason for concern. Many will not be diagnosed specifically as parainfluenza because we usually don't test for specific causes when we suspect symptoms are caused by a virus.

Watch for signs of difficulty breathing - especially in children - and be on the lookout for common complications from the cold and flu, which can occur after nearly any respiratory infection, including parainfluenza. If you aren't sure if you need to be seen or what to do, contact your health care provider to determine the right course of action for you.


"Parainfluenza." Medline Plus 15 Dec 10. US National Library of Medicine. 14 Jan 11.

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