Viral Infections

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Viral infections are responsible for a number of common ailments, including the common cold. Though they cannot be treated with antibiotics, as bacterial infections can, they tend to clear up on their own within a matter of days or weeks.

Some of the most common viral infections affect the respiratory tract. Read on for a guide to this type of viral infection. 

What is a viral infection?

A virus is a microorganism that invades living cells, using them to replicate and stay alive. When a virus enters the body and attacks the cells, this is referred to as a viral infection.

If you have a healthy immune system your body will usually be able to fight off the viral infection. Often your body will retain a “memory” of this virus, which means you’ll have immunity from it in the future. Certain viruses cannot be fought off by your immune system and stay in the body on a long-term basis, causing recurring bouts of symptoms over a period of years.

Unlike bacterial infections, viral infections do not respond to antibiotics. Antiviral medicines can be prescribed, but these cannot cure a viral infection – rather, they help keep the virus under control and reduce the severity of symptoms. 

What are some common viral infections?

Many common viral infections are respiratory tract infections (RTIs), which essentially means they affect the nose, sinuses, throat, airways and lungs.

Respiratory tract infections that can be caused by viruses include:

  • Common cold 
  • Flu
  • Bronchitis 
  • Laryngitis
  • Tonsillitis
  • Sinusitis
  • Pneumonia

What are the symptoms of a viral infection?

A viral infection that affects the respiratory tract can create a number of different symptoms.

The common cold causes a blocked or runny nose, sneezing, coughing, a sore throat, headaches, and sometimes a high temperature. The flu, which is often confused with the common cold, causes more severe symptoms – most notably a fever, aches and pains, exhaustion, difficulty sleeping, and occasionally nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea.

Bronchitis, laryngitis, tonsillitis and sinusitis are all conditions that can develop following a bout of cold or flu.

  • Bronchitis is an inflammation of the airways that causes a hacking cough, which might produce yellow or green phlegm and may last for several weeks.
  • Laryngitis is an inflammation of the voice box or vocal cords that causes a hoarse voice, a persistent cough, and a sore throat.
  • Tonsillitis is an inflammation of the tonsils that causes a sore throat, pain on swallowing, and occasionally white spots at the back of the throat.
  • Sinusitis is an inflammation of the sinuses that causes pain in the cheekbones and forehead, and a blocked nose.

Pneumonia is normally caused by a bacterial infection, but it can happen as a result of a viral infection. Pneumonia is a serious condition that causes a persistent cough, which may produce discoloured phlegm, difficulty breathing, rapid heartbeat, fever, and chest pain.

Other types of viral infection can cause symptoms that affect the respiratory tract:

  • Glandular fever can cause a fever, severe sore throat, extreme tiredness, and swollen glands 
  • Mumps can cause aches and pains, nausea, tiredness, and fever – its signature symptom is painful swollen glands, which change the shape of the face
  • Measles can initially cause cold-like symptoms and a fever, after which the distinctive measles rash develops.  

How are viral infections treated?

Viruses cannot be treated with antibiotics, which means most respiratory tract infections caused by a virus typically don’t require prescription treatment. If your symptoms are mild you can treat them at home using non-prescription painkillers from the pharmacy such as ibuprofen, paracetamol, cough syrup, and throat lozenges.

It’s generally recommended that you seek medical help if your symptoms haven’t gone away after a couple of weeks, or if they are very severe. You should see a doctor as soon as you can if you suspect that you have pneumonia. You may need hospital treatment for pneumonia if your symptoms are severe.

You can make an appointment with Doctor Care Anywhere to discuss your symptoms with someone from our team.

How can I avoid viral infections?

It’s not always easy to avoid picking up a viral infection, however good hygiene practice can help: make sure you wash your hands regularly, and keep communal surfaces clean.

You can also avoid the flu by getting the flu jab – this is free for pregnant women, over-65s, and any other people who are particularly at risk.

Content reviewed by Jemma Shafier, a Doctor Care Anywhere GP