5 things you need to know about the adenovirus versus the flu

HOUSTON – This has been one of the worst flu seasons on record--with multiple deaths across the country and many of them right here in Texas. Now doctors are warning of another virus that mimics the flu and is making people sick. It's called the adenovirus.

READ MORE: If it's not the flu, you might be sick because of this virus

A runny nose, cough, sore throat and fever -- all symptoms that medical experts say are shared by the flu virus and a virus that mimics the flu--the adenovirus. If you don't have the flu, you may have this. Here's what you need to know.

1) The symptoms are similar but not exactly the same.

"Common cold, runny nose, cough, sore throat, fever," said Dr. Brian Reed, the Harris County Director of Disease Control & Clinical Prevention for Harris County Public Health.

Those are many of the symptoms shared by both the flu and adenovirus. However, the adenovirus can also cause others.

The adenovirus "can also cause GI symptoms including upset stomach," said Reed. 

Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University told CNN, "They can also cause conjunctivitis and, particularly in children, diarrhea."

Pinkeye (conjunctivitis) is another symptom that can result from an adenovirus infection, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Other signs of illness include inflammation of the stomach and intestines (gastroenteritis), bladder infections and bronchitis. When your airways become filled with mucus, they may start to spasm, which causes coughing and shortness of breath; this is bronchitis.

Some people will develop pneumonia, an infection of the lungs, as a consequence of an adenovirus infection, Schaffner said. "Of all the cases of pneumonia that occur in adults, about 5% are actually probably caused by adenovirus."

2) Your flu shot will not protect you from the virus.

The flu virus and the adenovirus are not the same. While the flu will provide some protection for flu viruses, it will provide no protection for the adenovirus. Meaning, if you get the flu shot and avoid the flu, you may be able to get this virus, which can show symptoms of the flu or vice versa.

3) There are many strains of the the virus, but the general public is not vaccinated for them.

"It's actually a group of viruses. It's a family. There are multiple types of the virus," said Reed.

Discovered in the 1950s, adenoviruses are named after the tissue where they were first found: the adenoids, located just behind the nose, according to CNN. There are more than 60 specific types of adenoviruses that can cause human infections; others cause sickness exclusively in animals. Differences in types result in differences in symptoms. Some types are more likely to give you pinkeye, say, while other types might lead to gastroenteritis, according to CNN.

Dr. Reed said it is very difficult to create a vaccine for hundreds of strains of the virus that get people sick. People are generally not vaccinated for the adenovirus.

"We don't have a vaccine available to the general public. We generally give it to military recruits, and it does tend to circulate all year round," said Reed.

Luckily, Reed said, adenovirus symptoms are milder than flu symptoms.

4) The adenovirus virus lives longer on surfaces than the flu.

"It can stay on surfaces for several days, so if someone coughs or sneezes on a door handle or rubs their nose and touches something the [adenovirus] can actually live for several days whereas the flu [virus would survive] just a couple hours," said Reed.

5) Here's what you can do if you think you have the adenovirus

  • Thoroughly wash your hands
  • Thoroughly clean surfaces in your homes, schools and work spaces. 
  • Cover your coughs or sneezes
  • Avoid going to school, work or common spaces if you have symptoms
  • Take over-the-counter drugs to alleviate symptoms (consult your doctor if unsure)

"Symptoms usually last five to 10 days," said Reed. "Let it run it's course."

Reed said the adenovirus is less severe than the flu. He said though, that those who did not get the flu shot should still get it because the flu symptoms are much more severe.