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What Is Human Metapneumovirus, Exactly?PhotoAlto/Michele Constantini - Getty Images

  • Cases of human metapneumovirus (HMPV) rose sharply this spring, according to the CDC.

  • HMPV was first discovered in 2001.

  • There’s a lot experts are still learning about HMPV.

There are some viruses most people are at least aware of, like RSV and the flu. But then there are some that are common but most people have never heard of before. Human metapneumovirus (HMPV) falls into the latter camp.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), cases of HMPV skyrocketed this spring. CDC data show that in mid-March, nearly 11% of tested specimens came back positive for HMPV.

“We’re seeing spikes in all sorts of communicable infectious diseases lately,” says Thomas Russo, M.D., an infectious disease expert at the University of Buffalo in New York. “People have gone back to their lives and are interacting again. If someone has an infectious disease like human metapneumovirus, it will spread.”

Never heard of HMPV before? You’re not alone. While experts say most people who get it aren’t even aware that they have it, this is a virus that has the potential to make you seriously ill. Here’s the deal with human metapneumovirus, plus symptoms to look out for.

What is human metapneumovirus (HMPV)?

Human metapneumovirus is a virus that can cause upper and lower respiratory tract infections, according to the CDC. While anyone can get it, it’s a larger concern in young children, older adults, and people with weak immune systems, Dr. Russo says.

HMPV is kind of a newly-discovered virus—it was first detected in 2001. It’s also in the Pneumoviridae family along with respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), the CDC says. The virus circulates in winter and lasts until or through spring.

“It’s another one of the gang of respiratory viruses that cause the common cold and, occasionally, a more serious pneumonia-like illness,” says William Schaffner, M.D., an infectious disease specialist and professor of medicine at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. “It’s been out there all along, but we’re now getting better at testing for it and naming it.”

What are the signs and symptoms of HMPV?

The CDC says the following are the most common symptoms of HMPV:

  • Cough

  • Fever

  • Nasal congestion

  • Shortness of breath

Those symptoms are similar to a lot of other illnesses, including the flu—and even doctors can’t tell the difference by examining you. “It’s not possible to distinguish HMPV clinically from influenza,” says infectious disease expert Amesh A. Adalja, M.D., a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “HMPV is a cause of ‘the cold’—which is a syndrome that caused by many different viruses.”

How does HMPV spread?

The virus is believed to spread from person to person the same way as many other viruses, per the CDC. That includes:

  • Secretions from coughing and sneezing

  • Close personal contact, like touching or shaking hands

  • Touching objects or surfaces that have the viruses on them then touching the mouth, nose, or eyes

Ultimately, though, “we’re still learning about this,” Dr. Russo says.

HMPV prevention

The CDC recommends doing the following to lower your risk of getting HMPV:

  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.

  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth with unwashed hands.

  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick.

But Dr. Russo says that HMPV is “much less” infectious than COVID-19, the flu, and RSV.

HMPV treatment

There is no specific antiviral treatment for HMPV. “It’s not even something we usually look for,” Dr. Russo says. But Dr. Adalja points out that respiratory viral panels (i.e. tests) have made it “much easier” to diagnose HMPV, which is included in the diagnostic workup.

If you have HMPV-like symptoms, Dr. Schaffner recommends that you get tested to rule out the flu and COVID-19. If your doctor suspects that you have HMPV, they’ll likely just recommend supportive treatments, like a decongestant to help relieve stuffiness and acetaminophen or ibuprofen for your fever.

HMPV doesn’t commonly cause serious complications like pneumonia, but it can. “For most people, this is one of those viruses that comes and goes—you never even know you had it,” Dr. Russo says.

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