Adenovirus 14 Infection (Killer Cold Virus)

  • Medical Author:
    Charles Patrick Davis, MD, PhD

    Dr. Charles "Pat" Davis, MD, PhD, is a board certified Emergency Medicine doctor who currently practices as a consultant and staff member for hospitals. He has a PhD in Microbiology (UT at Austin), and the MD (Univ. Texas Medical Branch, Galveston). He is a Clinical Professor (retired) in the Division of Emergency Medicine, UT Health Science Center at San Antonio, and has been the Chief of Emergency Medicine at UT Medical Branch and at UTHSCSA with over 250 publications.

  • Medical Editor: Mary D. Nettleman, MD, MS, MACP
    Mary D. Nettleman, MD, MS, MACP

    Mary D. Nettleman, MD, MS, MACP

    Mary D. Nettleman, MD, MS, MACP is the Chair of the Department of Medicine at Michigan State University. She is a graduate of Vanderbilt Medical School, and completed her residency in Internal Medicine and a fellowship in Infectious Diseases at Indiana University.

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What is the killer cold virus?

The term "killer cold virus" was applied to a new strain of Adenovirus termed adenovirus 14 or Ad14 that appeared in multiple outbreaks worldwide since the 1950s and that has caused severe pneumonia and deaths in several different groups of individuals. This term was used because, in most people, typical adenoviruses cause symptoms of the common cold, not severe pneumonia or death. Investigations done by state and city health authorities, the U.S. Air Force, and CDC during several outbreaks showed that Ad14 is a rarely reported but emerging serotype of adenovirus that can cause severe and sometimes fatal respiratory disease in anyone, including healthy adults. Fortunately, Ad 14 infections are uncommon and most infections from Ad14 strains are not serious; the severe or fatal outcomes from Ad14 are relatively rare. However, the appellation of "killer cold virus" has stuck with the Ad14 strain of Adenovirus. This virus was first identified in the 1950s when Adenoviruses were first isolated from human adenoids (Adenovirus named after adenoids). The number 14 of Ad14 represents the antigenic makeup of the strain; currently, there are at least 52 strains (antigenically distinct) that are distinguished by immunologic techniques. These viruses have a double-stranded DNA that is easily modified in lab experiments and apparently can undergo changes in the environment that may change Ad14's ability to infect cells and cause disease. The Ad14 strain is infrequently reported or encountered, while Ad4 and Ad7 strains are the most widespread Adenovirus strains (account for about 80% of adenoviral infections).

What are symptoms and signs of an Adenovirus 14 infection?

Adenovirus 14 infections usually begin with cold symptoms such as:

  • a cough,
  • "runny nose," and
  • mild fever and possibly throat irritation.

The majority of infected people have these symptoms for several days (about three to five days), and then the infection clears without any medical treatment. However, with some individuals, infection with the adenovirus 14 strain (and rarely a few other strains such as 3, 7, 21, 30) progresses past the three to five days, causing additional symptoms. These symptoms may include: 

Although infection with Ad14 has been found in a few isolated individuals, most recent outbreaks have occurred with groups of individuals living in close contact. For example, the 2007 outbreak occurred in a military installation in San Antonio, TX, while the 2008 outbreak was in a small community in Alaska. A group of individuals that appears very ill (require hospitalization) due to respiratory problems, and are likely due to a "virus," should make clinicians suspect Ad14 as a possible cause of infection.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 3/8/2016

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