Better Me

Is a Human Parainfluenza Virus Giving You a Cough and Sniffles?

COVID-19 and the flu aren’t the only viruses around causing us to feel miserable. If you or your child has a case of the sniffles, another common culprit is parainfluenza. Not to be confused with the flu (influenza), parainfluenza refers to a group of viruses called human parainfluenza viruses (or HPIVs).

“Parainfluenza is a virus in the same family as measles and mumps,” said Russell Horton, DO, a physician with Banner Health Center in Queen Creek, AZ. “It’s different from the influenza virus which is in a different family of viruses. Often parainfluenza is less severe and there are no vaccines for it like there are for the flu.”

Symptoms of parainfluenza can be quite confusing though, especially if you’re experiencing similar symptoms like those of the flu, COVID-19 and other upper respiratory infections or viruses.

Read on to learn more about these viral invaders and how to fight them off.

What are the types of parainfluenza viruses?

There are four types of HPIV, aptly named HPIV-1, HPIV-2, HPIV-3 and HPIV-4. These all cause respiratory infections, but the type of infection, symptoms and location of the infection can depend on the virus you have. “These different types are also most active at different times of the year,” Dr. Horton noted.

Symptoms can vary depending on the viral type and individual, but here’s a quick breakdown of each:

  • HPIV-1: The leading cause of croup in infants and young children; often seen in the fall and winter
  • HPIV-2: A common cause for croup; often seen in the fall
  • HPIV-3: Mostly associated with bronchiolitis, bronchitis and pneumonia; often seen in the spring and summer, but can appear year-round
  • HPIV-4: The rarest of the four types; no seasonal patterns

What are the symptoms of parainfluenza viruses?

While symptoms and severity can vary person-to-person, common symptoms of HPIVs are similar to a common cold. Symptoms may include:

  • stuffy or runny nose
  • fever
  • sore throat
  • barking cough or dry cough (croup)
  • wheezing
  • stridor (a high-pitched noise heard usually when breathing in)
  • tightness in chest
  • shortness of breath
  • difficulty breathing

Most often, the symptoms aren’t severe enough to be cause for concern, however they can be life-threatening for infants, older adults and anyone who has a compromised or weakened immune system. “In some cases, HPIV can cause pneumonia and lung infections,” Dr. Horton said.

If you’re part of a high-risk group and are experiencing symptoms, contact your health care provider.

Is parainfluenza contagious?

Parainfluenza infections can pass easily from person to person, like other respiratory illnesses including COVID-19, the flu and colds.

“It’s transmitted by respiratory droplets as well as contact,” Dr. Horton said. “So being near a person when they cough or sneeze or touching someone who’s infected can spread the virus. It can also live on surfaces.”

In most cases, parainfluenza occurs in young children, but anyone can get it at any age.

How is parainfluenza diagnosed and treated?

Generally, parainfluenza is diagnosed by reviewing your symptoms and with a physical exam. “Tests can be run to check for HPIV and to find out which type, but this is usually saved for the hospital setting and is not routinely tested for at your primary care office,” Dr. Horton said.

There’s no cure for HPIV. Once you’ve been infected by a parainfluenza virus, it needs to run its course.

If your symptoms are mild, treatment is usually at-home remedies, such as nasal saline, nasal suction, cool mist humidifiers and lots of fluids. Tylenol (acetaminophen) or ibuprofen can be used for fevers. Honey may help but isn’t recommend for children under the age of 1 years old.

For croup, your health care provider may treat it with a dose of a steroid and, in more severe cases, may require breathing treatments.

How can I prevent parainfluenza altogether?

There currently isn’t a vaccine to prevent HPIV infection, but there are things you can do to help prevent infection. “In fact, prevention is done by a lot of the same things we have gotten used to during the pandemic,” Dr. Horton said. These include:

  • Staying home when sick
  • Avoiding contact with those who are sick
  • Frequent handwashing

“It’s easily spread among kids, so total prevention is hard to achieve,” Dr. Horton said. “If you think your child is ill with any condition, reach out to their provider to get more specific advice.”

For more helpful advice for colds, the flu, COVID-19 and other respiratory viruses, check out:

Cold and Flu Children's Health