This past cold and flu season was nothing to sneeze at — and now another respiratory tract infection is making headlines. 

The good news is, HMPV symptoms are usually mild — in fact, they’re similar to the common cold, with the infection often resolving on its own within a week. But it’s especially common in children, the elderly and people with weakened immune systems, and can lead to developing more dangerous complications, such as getting a lower respiratory tract infection like pneumonia or bronchitis. What’s more, some research suggests that the hospital tab among kids with HMPV can run up to around $277 million a year

Yet while we’ve known about HMPV for two decades, most people probably still have no idea what it is — or that they’ve even had it. So if you’ve got questions about human metapneumovirus, such as what symptoms to watch out for, then here is what you need to know, courtesy of the CDC and the American Lung Association. 

What is human metapneumovirus, or HMPV? Is this a new virus? 

Human metapneumovirus, or HMPV, is a common virus that causes an upper respiratory infection, like a cold, in people of all ages. But it’s especially common among children, older adults and people with weakened immune systems, and can cause dangerous complications such as pneumonia or bronchitis.

While you may assume this is a new virus, since many people have never heard of it before, HMPV was actually discovered in the Netherlands in 2001. It’s in the same Pneumoviridae family as respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV. And HMPV usually circulates in distinct, annual seasons similar to RSV and the flu; beginning in winter and lasting through the spring in temperate climates. 

Related: FDA advisers vote in favor of Pfizer’s maternal RSV vaccine

What are the HMPV symptoms? 

The human metapneumovirus symptoms are similar to a cold, including: 

  • Cough

  • Runny nose or nasal congestion

  • Sore throat

  • Fever

But some more severe cases can see people having difficulty breathing, wheezing and suffering asthma flare-ups. People with a history of lung disease, such as asthma, emphysema or COPD, may also see their pre-existing conditions make the HMPV symptoms more severe. 

Most people experiencing the milder HMPV symptoms don’t need to see a doctor, as the illness should go away on its own within a few days. But, if symptoms get worse, and/or you develop shortness of breath, wheezing or a more severe cough, then you should seek medical attention, the CDC recommends. 

And some more severe cases of HMPV could lead to secondary lower respiratory infections, such as pneumonia or bronchitis, which are more serious and require additional medical attention. 

How is HMPV transmitted? 

Similar to colds, the flu and COVID, HMPV is most likely spread from an infected person through secretions/droplets from coughing and sneezing, the CDC says, as well as close personal contact like touching or shaking hands. HMPV can also spread if you touch objects or surfaces that have the virus on them, and then touch your mouth, nose or eyes. 

So the CDC recommends limiting the spread of HMPV by following good hygiene: washing hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds; not touching the eyes, nose or mouth with unwashed hands; and avoiding close contact with people who are sick. 

Those who are sick or suffering cold-like symptoms can prevent making others sick by covering their mouth and nose when coughing and sneezing; washing their hands frequently and correctly; not sharing cups and eating utensils with others; not kissing others; and staying home while they’re feeling sick. What’s more, cleaning possible contaminated surfaces and high-traffic areas (like shared toys and doorknobs) can also potentially stop the spread. 

How is HMPV treated? Is there a vaccine? 

There are no specific antiviral medications or vaccines to treat HMPV yet. And because the virus tends to clear on its own within a few days, treatment is usually geared toward easing symptoms, such as taking acetaminophen and ibuprofen to address any pain or fever, or taking a decongestant.

But you should see your doctor or another healthcare professional if your symptoms worsen, or if you have difficulty breathing. The American Lung Association notes that those with more severe wheezing and coughing may need a temporary inhaler, and a doctor may also suggest a stronger oral medication like prednisone.

And Dr. John V. Williams, a pediatric infectious disease specialist and virologist who has researched HMPV for more than 20 years, recently wrote in The Conversation that some children are at higher risk for severe HMPV. This includes kids with underlying risk factors such as being born prematurely; those with conditions like asthma; or those who have compromised immune systems (such as organ transplant recipients or those undergoing cancer treatment.) So it’s important to keep a close eye on them and their symptoms.

How many days does HMPV last? 

This can vary by person, of course, but someone will typically start showing symptoms of  HMPV within three to six days after being exposed to the virus. And the symptoms usually last from two to five days, and resolve without treatment. But HMPV infections can develop into more severe illnesses like bronchitis or pneumonia, which can take a couple of weeks to recover from.  

How bad is it? 

Again, most cases of HMPV resolve on their own, and a lot of times, people don’t even know they’ve had it; instead, suspecting they are dealing with a cold or a flu bug. So there is no need to panic — but it is important to stay vigilant. 

After all, respiratory infections are the leading cause of death in children under 5 globally, as well as a leading cause of death in vulnerable groups such as premature infants, older adults and those with underlying medical conditions. And a 2016 report in the official journal of the Pediatric Infectious Diseases Society estimated that HMPV resulted in hospitalizing around 27,000 children under 18 annually, with a mean estimated medical cost of $277 million each year. 

The bottom line is to take care of yourself by washing your hands frequently, and to avoid touching your face with unwashed hands while you are well. And if you get sick, then keep up that good hygiene, but also stay home to avoid spreading your illness to others. And if symptoms worsen or you have trouble breathing, then speak with a doctor.

What’s more, vulnerable populations — such as children, the elderly and the immunocompromised — and their caregivers should also monitor symptoms closely and stay in touch with healthcare professionals in case the HMPV progresses into something more serious, like bronchitis or pneumonia.

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