What Are the Symptoms of Enterovirus?

These common viruses can be the cause of respiratory illnesses. Here's how to know if your cold symptoms are caused by an enterovirus.

In the summer and fall of 2014, a severe respiratory illness struck approximately 1400 people across the US in 49 states and the District of Columbia. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), almost all of the confirmed cases were with children, primarily kids with asthma or a history of wheezing.

The culprit turned out to be Enterovirus D68 (EV-D68), which is one of more than 100 types of non-polio enteroviruses that can cause mild to severe respiratory illness—or no symptoms at all, according to the CDC. And while the 2014 outbreak made headlines, there have been others since, including in 2016 and 2018, according to the CDC.

What exactly are enteroviruses—and should you be worried about when and if the next outbreak strikes? Health spoke to an infectious disease expert to find out.

What is enterovirus?

There are more than 100 types of enteroviruses; EV-D68 is just one kind of enterovirus, and polio is another. Other than polio, most enteroviruses are known as non-polio enteroviruses, according to the CDC—and those enteroviruses cause 10 to 15 million infections in the US each year, especially during the summer and fall months.

"Enterovirus loves the fall," Frank Esper, MD, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Cleveland Clinic told Health. "When the leaves are changing and the kids are in school, that's when enterovirus season is."

Most enteroviruses are related to rhinovirus, which is the common cold, according to a 2015 review article in the Cleveland Clinic Journal of Medicine. People with an enterovirus may be asymptomatic, while some develop mild cold symptoms that can go away on their own. Those illnesses are more common in infants, children, and teenagers since they haven't built up an immunity to enteroviruses yet, but adults can also become infected.

According to the CDC, symptoms of a mild non-polio enterovirus illness include fever, runny nose, skin rash, mouth blisters, and body and muscle aches.

In some cases, enteroviruses can also lead to infections—hand, foot, and mouth disease (HFMD) being one of the most common among infants and children under five years old, which causes blistering on the fingers, mouth, and feet. While it can seem scary to a parent with a child with HFMD, according to Dr. Esper, HFMD is "a very benign infection—usually [it's] what happens when small children get enterovirus for the first time."

According to the CDC, EV-D68 can cause mild to severe respiratory illness. Mild symptoms include runny nose, sneezing, coughing, and muscle and body aches, while severe symptoms include wheezing and difficulty breathing.

Other serious, but rare, enterovirus infections include viral conjunctivitis (eye infection), viral meningitis (infection of the covering of the spinal cord and/or brain), and viral encephalitis (infection of the brain), among others, per the CDC.

Those are some of the most dangerous complications. "There are certain types [of enterovirus] where it can cause really bad meningitis and encephalitis—and people die from that," said Dr. Esper. Still, it's important to remember that these enterovirus infections are extremely rare.

How is enterovirus treated?

Unfortunately, there's no treatment for enteroviruses on their own, said Dr. Esper. "Generally, you wait for the patient's immune system to kick out the virus."

But, if you do get enterovirus, you can take some steps to help yourself heal by managing symptoms. Most of the time, this includes staying hydrated, getting enough rest, and taking over-the-counter cold medicine as needed. But, according to the CDC, more severe cases may require hospitalization. If you or the child or adult you're taking care of starts having a difficult time breathing, call your healthcare provider right away or get emergency care.

How to avoid contracting an enterovirus

You can also take steps to prevent you or someone you know from getting enteroviruses since they're spread through close contact with an infected person or by touching surfaces that have been touched by an infected person. That means you can reduce your risk of picking it up by following the CDC guidelines for hand hygiene (this includes avoiding touching your face with unwashed hands), as well as the CDC guidelines for disinfecting your home, especially surfaces that are touched frequently by different people, like doorknobs and kitchen counters.

If you're sick, the CDC also recommends avoiding hugging, kissing, or having any other close contact with people, covering your coughs and sneezes with your upper shirt sleeve or tissue (not your hand), and staying home when you're sick.

While it can be difficult to avoid enterovirus, especially since some people can be asymptomatic and pass it on, regularly practicing good hand hygiene and other overall healthy habits can go a long way in its prevention.

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