What is Adenovirus? An Infectious Disease Expert Explains

First off, it's actually a group of viruses.

What if I told you that there's a group of viruses that can cause everything from a run-of-the-mill cold to bladder infections? Pretty freaky, right? And definitely not something you want to hear at the start of cold and flu season (sorry about that).

But it's true—they're called adenoviruses and, in some cases, they can be deadly. Health reached out to infectious disease experts to find out exactly what adenoviruses are, what their symptoms look like, and how you can treat them. Here's what you need to know.

What are adenoviruses?

Adenoviruses are actually a group of common viruses that can cause a range of illnesses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). That includes the common cold, stomach flu, sore throat, bronchitis, diarrhea, pink eye, and fever—all relatively mild illnesses that most people can fight off on their own. Sometimes, however, certain strains of adenoviruses can cause more serious conditions, like bladder infections or pneumonia.

Because adenoviruses are so different, their symptoms are also drastically varied, though they're mainly to blame for respiratory illnesses and conjunctivitis (aka, pink eye). That means they're responsible for many coughs, wheezes, and itchy, red eyes.

The thing that differentiates adenoviruses from other viruses (like influenza, for example) is the fact that it doesn't necessarily prefer the winter months. "“[Adenovirus] happens year-round," Frank Esper, MD, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Cleveland Clinic, tells Health. "It likes the summer as much as it likes the winter."

The most common way that adenoviruses spread is through close personal contact—like touching, coughing, sneezing, or shaking hands—or by touching a contaminated surface and then touching one’s mouth, nose, or eyes. Less commonly, adenoviruses can also spread through infected stool (during diaper changing, for example) or through water (like in swimming pools).

Can adenoviruses ever be deadly?

In some cases, yes. An 18-year-old college student at the University of Maryland named Olivia Paregol died from adenovirus after an outbreak in 2018, which sickened 40 students, 15 of which were hospitalized.

This is usually only a problem for individuals with weakened immune systems, says Dr. Esper. “When you have no immune system, adenovirus causes problems,” says Dr. Esper. This might have been the case for Paregol, who reportedly battled Crohn’s disease, a type of chronic, inflammatory bowel disease, and was on medication for it, according to the Washington Post.

Taking certain medications—including those to manage Crohn's disease and treat cancer, among others—can make individuals immunocompromised. However, adenoviruses can become dangerous even for individuals who aren’t immunocompromised. Whether or not that happens depends on the complications caused by the virus. Myocarditis, which is inflammation in the heart, can affect people who aren’t immunocompromised, Dr. Esper explains, and this complication can be fatal.

What's the treatment for adenoviruses?

There's no specific treatment for those with adenovirus infections, per the CDC—and most medications are used to help relieve symptoms, like over-the-counter pain medications and fever reducers.

Because of that, the best offense for adenoviruses is a good defense: That means practicing frequent hand-washing, never sharing drinks or food with someone who's sick, and steering clear of anyone openly coughing or sneezing (and maybe reminding them to please use their elbow).

In extreme cases, a drug called cidofovir might be used, but again, it's very rare. "[The drug] is extremely toxic. [You can go into] kidney failure from the medication itself,” says Dr. Esper. “We generally hold treatment for adenovirus. You have to be really, really sick [for this medication to be used.]”

Overall, if you're healthy, adenoviruses should be no big deal—but it's still wise to steer clear as much as possible, and protect others with good hygiene if you do happen to come down with a virus.

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