ADENOVIRUS: THIS VIRUS IS SUPER TRICKY

ADENOVIRUS: THIS VIRUS IS SUPER TRICKY

Adenovirus is going around. It’s a sneaky little virus (it can infect just about anywhere and happen anytime of the year). However, the sore throat, fever, pink-eye combo that happens most commonly in the summer is in full swing in our community now. The key to this little bug is prevention. Don’t get it in the first place. Wash your hands like crazy and make your kids do the same.

Adenovirus causes all sorts of problems

It can infect multiple organ systems, which makes it unique. There aren’t many viruses out there that can cause respiratory illness, GI illness (the vomit/diarrhea bug), conjunctivitis (pink eye), urinary tract infections, you name it. Stupid, but interesting random fact: the virus causes cancer in rodents, but not in humans. Go figure. Here’s the low down.

Kids hit the hardest

While anyone can get this nasty little bug, kids get the short end of the stick. Young children are affected the most. Interestingly, there is also a peak seen in military recruits (accounted for by their close quarters).

What are adenovirus symptoms?

This is the trick. Because adenovirus can infect all different parts of the body (and sometimes at the same time), it can present in all different ways.

  1. Respiratory symptoms: Cough, runny nose, sore throat, fever. The symptoms can be pretty severe and will even look like RSV. The key is what symptoms go together. If you have a case of bronchitis and conjunctivitis (pink eye), that is almost always adenovirus. Other viruses don’t usually give you pink eye with lower respiratory tract infections.
  2. GI symptoms (Gastroenteritis): Vomiting and diarrhea. It is quite common in the daycare setting.
  3. Urine/kidney symptoms: Painful urination, frequent urination, and blood in the urine.

How do you catch adenovirus?

The site of entry usually determines the site of infection. If the virus goes in the respiratory tract via inhaling infected droplets, you get a respiratory bug. If you ingest fecal material, you’ll get a GI (gastrointestinal) bug. I know the concept is gross, but this is how it works. Infected person A doesn’t wash his/her hands after going to the bathroom (or changing their infected child’s diaper) and touches the door handle. You come along and touch the infected door handle. Your hands now have infected material. When you later wipe your mouth, voila, you’re infected. It’s a hardy little virus and can survive a long time outside of a host (which means surfaces stay infectious for a long time). FYI, water can get infected also. Once again, here’s another reason to make sure pools are chlorinated properly.

How is adenovirus diagnosed?

There are fancy lab tests to diagnose adenovirus. Most of the time we don’t do them as there isn’t a cure and the tests are expensive. However, sometimes there are circumstances where testing is done (e.g., severe symptoms, young infants, prolonged fever, immunocompromised patients). The patients that we have specifically tested in our office over the last few weeks have all been positive for adenovirus. The location tested reflects the presenting symptoms. If the symptoms are respiratory, we usually use a swab that goes up the nose. If the problem is diarrhea or bloody urine, a stool sample or urine sample is tested. Blood tests are hit-and-miss whether they are helpful (as most people will have positive titers anyhow by the time they are school-aged). Most of the time, the diagnosis is made clinically. I feel like such a detective when I piece together some of the adenovirus unique infectious qualities, and make the diagnosis.

Is there a treatment?

Unfortunately, there is no cure to adenovirus. Since it is a virus, antibiotics don’t help. In fact, antibiotics will just make matters worse. Antibiotics screw with your child’s normal flora and contribute to antibiotic resistance. So don’t buy into the “just in case” mentality with antibiotics.

The treatment is completely supportive. In essence, you treat the symptoms to make the infected person feel better. If there is fever, treat the fever (with Tylenol or Motrin). If there is vomiting and diarrhea, push fluids to keep the person hydrated.

Should you take your child to the doctor?

I end up seeing a ton of cases of adenovirus in the office because what to do often isn’t clear cut. The problem is that the symptoms of adenovirus often cross over with more concerning illnesses that should be seen. For example, if your child has a sore throat, it is reasonable to ensure the infection isn’t strep (which has to see a doctor for antibiotic treatment). If your child has pink eye, you probable should get that checked out to make sure it isn’t bacterial and needs a drop. So you can see how it’s a difficult call for a parent to make. If the symptoms are severe, prolonged, or questionable you probably should take your child in (or if your child is under 2 months old). If you’re certain it’s adenovirus (e.g., another child of yours has already seen the doctor and been diagnosed), then you don’t need to see the doctor.

When are you out of the clear?

Now that you have a child infected with adenovirus at your house, when are you done with it? When can you stop worrying about the other kids in your house getting it? Here’s more bad news. Once exposed, it can take 2 days to 2 weeks to develop symptoms. To make matters worse, as already mentioned, the virus is really hardy and lives on surfaces a long time (toys, towels, light switches, etc). Unfortunately, that means more cleaning (add it to the never ending list, right?). It’s not uncommon for me to see families who have been dealing with this virus in one way or another for weeks and weeks in their houses. I’m sorry to be the bearer of the bad news.

One special subtype: the “super cold”

It’s worth mentioning, since it’s gotten a fair amount of press coverage over the years, there is one serotype (which is essentially a certain strain) of adenovirus called serotype 14 that is sometimes referred to as the “super cold.” When people get this strain, the symptoms tend to be very severe (with roughly 40% requiring hospitalization and half of those in the intensive care unit). This is diagnosed when specific testing is done (once again, getting to the severe cases).

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About The Author

Dr. Monica Wonnacott

I'm a pediatrician and a mom. I've been doing this doctor thing for 10 years, and love it. I'm known for giving parents the straight scoop without always sugar-coating it. And I believe in educating parents. The more you know, the better care you give your kids.

Dr. Monica Wonnacott


I'm a pediatrician and a mom. PediatricAnswers.com is my blog where parents can get the straight scoop on their child's health, largely based on my experience in the office and at home. I don't diagnose on the site, so please don't ask. These are just my opinions. Use this site as a resource. And trust your parent gut.

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