Germs and Viruses That Spread Disease

Medical Author: Melissa Conrad Stoppler, MD
Medical Editor: William C. Shiel Jr, MD, FACP, FACR

Enteroviruses are a group of viruses that include the polioviruses (viruses that cause polio) along with other types of viruses called coxsackieviruses and echoviruses. Rhinoviruses (viruses that cause the common cold) are the most common viruses infecting humans. The second most common viruses infecting humans are the non-polio enteroviruses (all the members of this virus group excluding the polio-causing viruses).

While the polioviruses have been eliminated in the Western Hemisphere, there are 62 different non-polio enteroviruses that are known to cause disease in humans. Anyone can be infected by non-polio enteroviruses, which are believed to cause 10-15 million illnesses per year in the U.S. alone. Infants, children, and adolescents are more likely than adults to develop an illness from enteroviral infection since they are less likely to have immunity to these viruses from previous exposures.

How are enteroviruses spread?

Enteroviruses are spread from person to person through contact with nasal secretions, saliva, stool from an infected person, or by contact with surfaces contaminated with bodily secretions from an infected person. Non-polio enteroviruses cause a variety of different illnesses. Many people who are infected with an enterovirus will not become ill and will have no symptoms of the infection. Others will develop a respiratory illness similar to the common cold. Because infections with non-polio enteroviruses are most common during the summer and fall in the U.S., many instances of a "summer cold" are likely related to these infections.

Enteroviruses can also cause flu-like symptoms, rash, or in rare cases, inflammation of the heart (myocarditis) or brain (encephalitis). These viruses are also known causes of viral (sometimes called "aseptic") meningitis. Enterovirus infection is a particular risk during pregnancy since newborns infected with one of these viruses can, in rare instances, develop a severe and even potentially fatal illness.

The condition known as hand-foot-and-mouth disease (HFMD), a common illness of infants and children, is also caused by some of the non-polio enteroviruses. Children suffering from this disease develop fever, sores in the mouth, and a blistering rash.

How can I protect myself from enteroviruses?

No vaccines are available against the non-polio enteroviruses. Fortunately, most instances of infection with these agents lead to mild illnesses that resolve on their own, or do not cause any illness. Strict hygienic practices including thorough handwashing and avoiding potentially contaminated surfaces are the best ways to prevent spread of enteroviral infections.

Last Editorial Review: 10/7/2008


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