Adenoviruses are a group of viruses that can cause mild to severe infection throughout your body. Adenovirus infections most commonly affect your respiratory system. These infections can cause symptoms similar to the common cold or flu. Most adenovirus infections are mild and require only symptom relief for treatment.
Adenovirus is a common virus that can cause a range of cold- or flu-like infections. Researchers have identified about 50 types of adenoviruses that can infect humans. Adenovirus infections occur throughout the year, but they tend to peak in the winter and early spring. Infections range from mild to severe, but serious illness doesn’t happen often.
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Adenoviruses can affect people of all ages. But they’re most common in children younger than 5 years old. The spread of adenoviruses in babies and young children occurs often in daycares. Babies and children in this setting come into close contact with one another. They’re also more likely to put objects in their mouths and less likely to wash their hands frequently.
The spread of adenoviruses in adults can occur in crowded environments. If you spend time in a dormitory or military quarters, you may be at a higher risk of contracting the virus. The virus also commonly spreads in hospitals and nursing homes.
If you have a weakened immune system, you’re more likely to get seriously ill from an adenovirus infection. This includes people who’ve had stem cell transplants or organ transplants. It also includes people who have cancer or HIV/AIDS. If you have cardiac or respiratory disease, your chances of severe infection increase as well.
The symptoms of adenovirus infections you experience depend on which part of your body the virus infects. The virus most commonly infects your respiratory system. An adenovirus infection in your respiratory tract can cause symptoms similar to the common cold or flu. Symptoms or conditions you may experience include:
Adenoviruses can also affect your gastrointestinal tract. An infection in your gastrointestinal tract may cause diarrhea. You may also experience gastroenteritis. Gastroenteritis is inflammation of your stomach or intestines. It can cause stomach pain, diarrhea, nausea and vomiting.
More rarely, adenoviruses can affect your bladder or nervous system. Viruses in your bladder can cause urinary tract infections. Viruses in your nervous system can cause conditions that can affect your brain. These conditions include encephalitis and meningitis.
Most adenovirus symptoms last from a few days to up to two weeks. Severe infections may last longer. You may have symptoms that continue to linger for a while, such as a cough.
There are approximately 50 types of adenoviruses that cause infections in humans. The different types infect different parts of your body. The virus can spread easily. Young children and people with compromised immune systems are especially vulnerable to infection.
Adenoviruses are very contagious. They can easily spread through:
Adenoviruses are resistant to many common disinfectants. Therefore, they can remain infectious on surfaces for a long time.
In addition, these types of viruses can release from your body (shed) for days or even weeks after you’ve recovered from an infection. So the virus can continue to spread even if you no longer have symptoms.
If you have a mild infection, you probably don’t need to go to your healthcare provider. If you have severe symptoms, see your healthcare provider. They may order laboratory tests to confirm an adenovirus diagnosis. They may swab your nose or throat to collect a sample of your mucus. If your community is experiencing an outbreak, they may order lab tests as well. But lab tests for adenoviruses aren’t routine.
There aren’t any specific treatments for adenovirus infections. Most infections are mild and require only symptom relief. You can relieve most symptoms with over-the-counter fever reducers and pain relievers. In addition, make sure to drink plenty of water and get plenty of rest.
If you have severe symptoms and/or a weakened immune system, make sure to see your healthcare provider. You may need treatment in the hospital to help you recover from a serious infection. In rare cases, you may need treatment with an antiviral medication such as cidofovir or ribavirin.
You can reduce your risk of getting sick with an adenovirus infection by protecting yourself and your family. Ways to prevent infections include:
If you’re already sick with adenovirus infection, take steps to prevent the spread. You can protect others by:
No adenovirus vaccine is currently available to the general public. The military uses a vaccine for certain types of the virus. Only military personnel who are at a higher risk of infection receive the vaccine. The FDA hasn’t approved the vaccine for use outside the military.
The adenovirus vaccine contains a live virus that can be shed in stool. That means it can be released from your body. If transmitted, the virus can cause illness in other people. Researchers haven't studied the safety and effectiveness of the vaccine in the general population yet. They also haven't tested it on people with weakened immune systems.
If you’re otherwise healthy, an adenovirus infection has a good prognosis. With rest and other supportive measures, the virus will pass and you’ll be on your way back to good health.
But in people who are immunocompromised, mortality rates can be as high as 70%. Therefore, see your healthcare provider as soon as you develop symptoms.
Most adenovirus infections will pass quickly on their own. But if you or your child develop any of the following symptoms, it’s important to call your healthcare provider:
Adenoviruses and coronaviruses cause infections that share many common symptoms, so it can be hard to tell the two apart. Both can be transmitted through respiratory droplets or direct contact. Both can cause severe respiratory tract infections. But adenoviruses can linger longer than coronaviruses because they’re more resistant to disinfectants.
Coronaviruses have an extra layer (envelope) that covers their protein shell (capsid). The envelope is a membrane made up of lipids and proteins that protect the virus when it’s outside of its host cell. The images you’ve seen of the coronavirus have spike proteins coming out of their envelopes.
Adenoviruses don’t have an extra envelope covering their capsid. The absence of an envelope actually makes them more resistant to disinfectants.
You’d think having an extra layer would help protect a virus. But it’s a little more complicated than that. Coronaviruses (and other enveloped viruses) have proteins that bind to their envelopes. When the envelopes break down, they lose the proteins that made them infectious. This makes them less resistant to disinfectants. Adenoviruses (and other non-enveloped viruses) bind their proteins directly to their capsids. The capsids stay intact and are more resistant to disinfectants.
Researchers use adenoviruses as viral vectors. That means they take an altered, harmless version of adenovirus and use it to make a vaccine. The altered version is called a vector. The Johnson & Johnson Janssen COVID-19 vaccine is a type of viral vector vaccine. The J&J vaccine contains a weakened adenovirus. Scientists modified the virus so it can’t replicate in human cells. But it does deliver information to your cells to help protect you. The vaccine teaches your body how to make copies of spike proteins. That way, if you’re exposed to the real virus later, your body will recognize it and remember how to fight it off.
Viral vector vaccines don’t give you any viruses, and they don’t affect your DNA. These types of vaccines have been thoroughly tested for safety and effectiveness.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
If you have a cough, sniffles or a sore throat, there’s a chance you picked up an infection from an adenovirus. Adenoviruses are usually mild and go away on their own without medical treatment. But you should call your healthcare provider if you have a compromised immune system. You should definitely call if your symptoms are severe or last longer than two weeks. If you’re otherwise healthy, drink plenty of water and take a rest. You’ll be back on your feet in no time.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 05/17/2022.
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