Rhinovirus Explained: Causes, Symptoms, Treatment, and Prevention

Medically Reviewed By Stacy Sampson, D.O.
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Rhinovirus is the main cause of the common cold and occurs all year round. There is currently no cure for rhinovirus, but medications and rest are beneficial to treat the symptoms. Rhinovirus passes from person to person through touching and breathing in the virus. It is common in children, but it can affect adults as well. Symptoms include a runny nose, sneezing, a sore throat, and mild fever.

This article explains what rhinovirus is, the symptoms, how doctors diagnose the condition, the treatment options available, and other illnesses that are a result or complication of rhinovirus.

What is rhinovirus, and what symptoms does it cause?

a girl is washing her hands in a sink
Mel Karlberg/Stocksy United

Rhinovirus is the leading cause of a common cold. Your cold may begin with a runny nose, a sore throat, and sneezing. You may then start to experience mild fever, a loss of appetite, headaches, coughing, ear infections, infections of the sinuses, and aching muscles.

Rhinovirus is common among children. It is easy for children to pass the infection on through sharing toys, touching each other, and breathing in the virus when another child sneezes or coughs. Children have approximately eight to 10 colds during the first 2 years of their life. This number can increase if the child spends more time in group child care settings and around other children with a cold.

In infants and young children, rhinovirus can cause lung problems such as pneumonia, bronchiolitis, and croup.

How might doctors diagnose rhinovirus?

To diagnose rhinovirus, your doctor will likely ask you some questions about your medical history and your symptoms. They will then carry out a physical examination.

If your symptoms are severe, your doctor may test a sample of your mucus.

Rhinovirus and the common cold

Rhinovirus is the most common cause of the common cold, which is responsible for 10–40% of colds.

Adults get approximately two to three colds per year, and young children who go to elementary school or kindergarten have an average of around five to eight colds per year.

It is likely that, with a cold, you will begin to start experiencing symptoms quickly. You may find that you feel your worst on days 2–3, and symptoms may last around a week.

If you have a cold, you should drink plenty of fluids and rest. You may find that over-the-counter (OTC) medications help reduce your symptoms, but they will not cure your cold.

Read about seven treatments for the common cold here.

Rhinovirus and bronchiolitis

Several viruses can cause bronchiolitis, one of which is the rhinovirus. The symptoms are like those of a cold and include a runny nose, fever, and a cough. However, the illness may also cause wheezing, or you or your child may find breathing harder. This is because bronchiolitis affects the smaller airways.

Bronchiolitis often affects infants and children. Most cases are mild, so you should notice that your child gets better within 2–3 weeks.

Your child may not need treatment for bronchiolitis if it is mild. If your child’s bronchiolitis is serious, however, they may need to go to the hospital to receive oxygen and treatment for dehydration.

Rhinovirus and pneumonia

Pneumonia is a type of chest infection that causes the alveoli in your lungs to become inflamed and fill with fluid.

If you have the common cold — which rhinovirus can commonly cause — and you also have a weakened immune system, asthma, or a respiratory condition, you may be more likely to develop complications, such as viral or bacterial pneumonia.

Your pneumonia can be mild or more severe. If your pneumonia is mild but thought to be bacterial, it is likely that your doctor will prescribe you a course of antibiotics to take for 5 days. They may tell you to rest and drink plenty of fluids. If your pneumonia is serious, you may have to go to the hospital and take a longer course of antibiotics.

Treatment can also include oxygen therapy if you are struggling with your breathing. You may receive fluids through an IV drip if you are unable to eat and drink.

Read our pneumonia appointment guide here.

Rhinovirus, asthma, and wheezing

Asthma attacks can be due to viral infections of the upper respiratory tract, such as rhinovirus. If you have asthma and have a cold, you may find that your cold lasts longer, and it may lead to an asthma attack.

If your doctor thinks that you may have asthma, it is likely that you will use at least a reliever inhaler to see if it helps you. If you need to use the reliever inhaler more than just a few times per week, your doctor may suggest that you take a reliever with a preventer inhaler on an ongoing basis.

Your reliever inhaler will ease any coughing, wheezing, breathlessness, and chest tightness while symptoms are present. Your preventer inhaler will help relieve any swelling and inflammation that may be in your airways over the long haul.

There are also other treatment options available, including a range of other inhalers, preventer tablets, and steroid tablets. If needed, your doctor may also refer you to a specialist.

Learn eight things doctors want you to know about severe asthma here.

Rhinovirus vs. coronavirus

Coronaviruses are a group of viruses that can cause mild illnesses, such as the common cold, and more serious diseases, such as Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS).

If a coronavirus, rather than rhinovirus, causes your common cold, the treatment is still the same for mild symptoms. There is currently no cure, but you can treat your cold symptoms using OTC medications, drinking lots of water, and getting plenty of sleep.

View more articles on COVID-19 here.

When to seek medical care

If your symptoms last longer than 10 days or get a lot worse — for example, if you experience fever, chills, aches, or breathing difficulties — you should speak with your doctor.

You should also speak with a doctor if your child is younger than 3 months of age and has a high temperature, is feeling weak, or is less responsive.

How to treat rhinovirus

There is no specific treatment for rhinovirus or the common cold. However, you can ease the symptoms by taking OTC medications, resting, and drinking plenty of fluids.

OTC medications for the common cold may include:

  • acetaminophen or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to lower your temperature or reduce head or body aches
  • decongestant spray or tablets to ease a blocked nose

Your doctor likely will not prescribe you antibiotics for the rhinovirus, as antibiotics do not work against viruses.

Always check with your doctor or pharmacist before taking non-prescribed medications or giving them to your children.

How to prevent rhinovirus

There are several things you can do to help reduce the chance of rhinovirus

spreading. Some prevention tips are as follows:

  • Wash your hands regularly and thoroughly with soap and water, especially after using the toilet and before cooking a meal.
  • Use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
  • Clean surfaces, tabletops, toys, and other shared objects.
  • Sneeze and cough into a tissue and then place the tissue into a trash can.
  • Wash your hands after sneezing and coughing.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.
  • Keep your distance from people who have a cold.
  • Stay at home if you have a cold, and avoid close contact with people around you.

Summary

Rhinovirus is the primary cause of the common cold. It passes from person to person as a result of touching contaminated surfaces or breathing in the virus. Children are most likely to get rhinovirus, but adults can get it two or three times per year.

Symptoms of rhinovirus include a runny nose, coughing, sneezing, a loss of appetite, and mild fever. Rhinovirus is not currently curable, but taking OTC medications can help treat the symptoms. Your symptoms are likely to improve in around 7–10 days.

Rhinovirus can cause other illnesses and complications, such as bronchiolitis, pneumonia, and asthma attacks.

If you have any concerns about rhinovirus or what medications to use, contact your doctor.

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Medical Reviewer: Stacy Sampson, D.O.
Last Review Date: 2022 May 18
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.