What Is Parainfluenza?

Flu-Like Symptoms Caused by a Different Virus

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

Parainfluenza is a common virus that can cause both upper and lower respiratory infections, including colds, bronchitis, croup, and pneumonia. Despite the name, it is not linked to influenza because it is caused by an entirely different virus known as human parainfluenza virus (HPIV).

There are actually four different types of HPIV:

  • HPIV-1: the leading cause of croup in children
  • HPIV-2: also a common cause for croup typically seen in autumn
  • HPIV-3: associated with pneumonia, bronchitis, and bronchiolitis
  • HPIV-4: a less common type associated with more severe illness

Symptoms vary depending on both the viral type and individual. Parainfluenza symptoms are most severe in infants, persons with weakened immune systems, and the elderly.

How Parainfluenza Is Spread

As with the cold and flu, parainfluenza can be easily passed from person to person. The virus itself is quite robust and can live on surfaces for up to 10 hours. As a result, it can spread rapidly through kindergarten and elementary schools.

To prevent the spread of infection, the same rules for the cold or flu would apply:

  • Wash your hands after coming into contact with a cold or flu sufferer.
  • Clean any objects and surfaces the ill person may have touched.
  • If you are ill, cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze.
  • Keep a child from school if he or she is sick.

Common Parainfluenza Symptoms

After exposure, it takes between two to seven day for symptoms to develop, the most common of which include:

  • Sore throat
  • Cough
  • Sneezing
  • Fever
  • Shortness of breath
  • Wheezing
  • Congestion
  • Ear pain
  • Chest pain
  • Lack of appetite

In some cases, the symptoms can progressively worsen and lead to infections in the main bronchial tube of the lungs (bronchitis), the smaller air passages (bronchiolitis), or the lung itself (pneumonia).

Treatment Options

Parainfluenza is typically treated symptomatically. If the symptoms are mild, there is usually no need for medical intervention. In cases of fever or body aches, acetaminophen or an over-the-counter cold and flu remedy may be used. (For children and adolescents, aspirin should be avoided.)

A parainfluenza infection can sometimes turn serious in younger children. In cases of wheezing or breathing difficulty, nebulizer medications such as Pulmicort may be used to help relax and open the air passages. In the event of respiratory distress, oral steroids or a shot of epinephrine may be prescribed. Secondary pneumonia is typically be treated with antibiotics.

A Word From Verywell

Parainfluenza is more common than most of us realize and, in most cases, is not of great concern. In fact, most people won't know whether they've caught a cold or HPIV, and it usually doesn't matter.

However, if symptoms worsen or persist, don't hesitate to seek medical attention. This is especially true if you have child under 18 months. Tests can be performed to identify the virus, while an X-ray or CT scan can determine the extent of a respiratory infection, if any.

Sources:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Human Parainfluenza Viruses (HPIVs)." Atlanta, Georgia; updated October 6, 2017.

Waghmare, A.; Wagner, T.; Andrews, R. et al. "Successful Treatment of Parainfluenza Virus Respiratory Tract Infection With DAS181 in 4 Immunocompromised Children." J Pediatric Infect Dis Soc. 2015; 4(2):114-8. DOI: 10.1093/jpids/piu039.

Continue Reading