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What to Know About hMPV, a Respiratory Infection That's on the Rise

From colds to flu to COVID-19 to RSV (respiratory syncytial virus), there are lots of contagious respiratory illnesses out there. And if you have kids, it can seem like they’re always coming down with something, no matter what time of year it is. 

There’s another respiratory tract infection making the rounds now that you may not have heard of. It’s called human metapneumovirus (hMPV), and it belongs to the Paramyxoviridae family like RSV does. “It’s a relatively newly discovered virus—it was first noted in 2001,” said Nathan Price, MD, a pediatric infectious disease specialist with Banner Children’s.

This spring, while cases of COVID-19 and RSV were decreasing across the United States, hMPV infections were on the rise. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), at the beginning of March, about 1 in 5 antigen tests and almost 11% of PCR tests came back positive for hMPV. That may be because hMPV tends to be most active in the late winter and early spring, even though you can contract it any time of year. 

What are the symptoms of hMPV?

hMPV symptoms are similar to the ones you see with the common cold—cough, congestion, sore throat, runny nose and sometimes fever and wheezing. Some people only get a mild case of hMPV, while others can have more severe symptoms, such as difficulty breathing, bronchiolitis and pneumonia. 

How does hMPV spread?

Like many other contagious respiratory diseases, it spreads through close personal contact when an infected person coughs, sneezes or talks. You can also contract it by touching a contaminated surface and then touching your face, eyes, nose or mouth, Dr. Price said.

How can you prevent hMPV infection?

You can help keep from getting sick, or from spreading the virus to others, by:

  • Socially distancing yourself and considering wearing a mask when you are sick. Have your children follow these practices as well.
  • Covering your coughs and sneezes. Maintain good respiratory hygiene by covering your mouth and nose with a tissue or your elbow when you cough or sneeze. Dispose of used tissues properly. 
  • Washing your hands frequently, especially after coughing, sneezing or blowing your nose.
  • Disinfecting surfaces that could transmit germs, such as doorknobs, light switches and countertops. 

There is no vaccine to prevent hMPV. It’s a good idea to stay up to date on influenza and pneumococcal vaccines to reduce the risk of complications that could arise from other infections.

Who’s at risk for hMPV?

While the virus can spread to anyone, people in these groups are at higher risk:

  • Children under age 2, since their immune systems are immature and they haven’t been exposed to many viruses.
  • People who have weakened immune systems from HIV/AIDS, chemotherapy or immunosuppressive medications.
  • People with existing respiratory conditions such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), bronchitis or cystic fibrosis.
  • People who live or spend time in crowded places, such as nursing homes, daycares or households with many people.
  • People who have close contact with someone infected with hMPV.

Infants, older adults, people with compromised immune systems and people with other respiratory diseases are at higher risk for more severe symptoms from hMPV. Monitor people in these groups closely, and if symptoms are getting worse, contact a doctor. 

Call 911 for signs of respiratory distress, such as rapid or difficulty breathing, chest pain or bluish lips or face. 

How is hMPV diagnosed?

A lot of times, you won’t know if hMPV is causing your symptoms. If you or your child has cold symptoms, you might treat them at home. And even if you seek medical care, they might not test for hMPV. 

“There isn’t a good way to distinguish it from other illnesses without specific testing, usually with a nasal swab. And there’s not usually any reason to test for this virus, since there’s no specific antiviral treatment for it,” Dr. Price said.

Testing is normally only done in severe cases, such as in people with underlying health conditions or people who are hospitalized. 

If testing is necessary, it may include:

  • Medical history and physical examination. Your health care provider will ask about symptoms, any recent exposure to people with respiratory illnesses and any underlying health conditions. They will also evaluate respiratory signs and symptoms with a thorough physical examination. 
  • Nasal or throat swab. Your doctor can collect a sample from the nasal passages or throat and send it to a laboratory for testing.
  • Molecular tests. Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) or similar tests can detect hMPV genetic material. These tests are very accurate. 
  • Rapid antigen tests. These tests detect specific proteins or antigens associated with hMPV. They can provide quick results, but molecular tests are more accurate. 

If you think you or your child might have an hMPV infection, talk to a health care professional about whether testing is needed. In most situations, testing isn’t needed or helpful. 

How is hMPV treated?

There’s no FDA-approved antiviral treatment available for hMPV. Most cases are mild and resolve on their own. Treatment involves alleviating symptoms and staying comfortable. You can try:

  • Getting plenty of rest, which helps your body recover.
  • Drinking lots of water so you don’t get dehydrated.
  • Reducing fever and discomfort with acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil, or Motrin). 
  • Relieving congestion with saline nasal drops or sprays. A humidifier or steam inhalation can also help soothe irritated airways and ease breathing. 

The bottom line

Human metapneumovirus (hMPV), a respiratory tract infection with symptoms like the common cold, is rising. Most people recover at home with rest, fluids and treatment for symptoms. But some people can get more serious cases, including babies, older adults, people with compromised immune systems and people with other respiratory conditions. 

Do you have symptoms that could be hMPV?

Make an appointment with a primary care physician
Visit an urgent care  near you. 

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