Acute viral infections are of two types-local and systemic-both usually resulting from a direct effect of the invading virus on host tissue cells. Acute local infections generally occur at the site of viral infection. For example, acute respiratory infections include (1) the common cold, in which the rhinovirus infects only the nasal mucosa, (2) influenza, in which the virus is found in both nasal and bronchial mucosa, where severe damage can result in death, (3) flulike illnesses caused by adenoviruses localized in lymphoid tissue of the throat (although infection also can occur in the intestine and the eye or be spread to the heart), and (4) severe respiratory infections of infants and children, caused by parainfluenza viruses or respiratory syncytial viruses, which may be life-threatening. Examples of acute infections localized to the intestine include those that result in enteritis (bowel inflammation), which may be accompanied by diarrhea; these are often caused by rotaviruses and coronaviruses.
Many viruses transmitted by the respiratory route (from sneezes and coughs, for example) and limited to humans begin their cycle of infection in the upper respiratory tract (nose and throat) and then enter the bloodstream, where they are spread to distant tissues. Examples of such diseases are measles, mumps, and chickenpox, in which the growth of the specific virus in the mucosal cells of the throat during the first few days of infection usually results in mild fever and achiness; this stage is called the prodromal period of the illness. During the next few days, the virus enters the draining lymph nodes and then the bloodstream, where it is spread throughout the tissues of the body, resulting in fever and rash (in the case of measles and chickenpox) and inflammation of the parotid glands and, less frequently, the testes, ovaries, and joints (in the case of mumps). Varicella (chickenpox) virus rarely causes pneumonia, but all these viruses can cause meningitis and, rarely, encephalitis. A similar pattern of infection formerly occurred with smallpox, a disease that was more frequently fatal but now ostensibly has been eradicated.
A large number of viruses of the digestive tract (enteroviruses)-among them poliovirus, Coxsackie viruses, and echoviruses (enteric cytopathic human orphan virus)-also cause a two-phase illness. Enteroviruses grow initially in the intestinal tract and are transmitted by mouth through water, food, and other materials contaminated with feces. The viruses are resistant to the acid normally found in the stomach and thus reach the intestinal tract, where they multiply in living mucosal cells. This initial period of viral invasion and growth in the intestine causes either an initial mild febrile illness or is asymptomatic. Over the next few days these enteroviruses are spread from the intestinal mucosa to the draining lymph nodes, from which they invade the bloodstream, resulting in a condition known as viremia. From the bloodstream the viruses are widely spread to all tissues, but in most cases no symptomatic disease occurs. Poliovirus in less than 1 percent of cases affects the spinal cord or brain, resulting in paralysis or death. Different types of Coxsackie viruses and echoviruses can cause acute, usually nonfatal, illnesses such as meningitis, carditis, pleurisy, or rashes.
Many viral diseases are transmitted by bites of insects or other arthropods, and these infections usually begin in the skin or lymph nodes and rapidly invade the bloodstream. The nature of the disease caused by these arthropod-borne viruses (arboviruses) is determined by the affinity (tropism) of each virus for specific organs. Many that have an affinity for brain tissue cause encephalitis or meningitis, but others primarily infect the muscles, liver, heart, or kidneys. Virtually all these diseases are epidemic in character, and the viruses that cause them are the primary pathogens of birds and mammals. The insect, usually a certain species of mosquito, takes a blood meal from the infected host bird or mammal and shortly thereafter bites a human, thus transmitting the virus. These arboviruses do not ordinarily multiply in the insect but simply reside on its proboscis. Examples of human epidemic diseases resulting from transmission of these often fatal arboviruses are encephalitis caused by viruses of the family Togaviridae and Flaviviridae, yellow fever and dengue caused by viruses of the family Flaviviridae, and hemorrhagic fevers caused by viruses of the families Bunyaviridae and Arenaviridae. Of considerable interest and concern is the identification of new strains of viruses, particularly a hantavirus of the Bunyaviridae family that was responsible for an epidemic in the early 1990s in the southwestern United States that resulted in considerable numbers of fatal human infections.