The objectives of this study were to determine the incidence of infection by respiratory viruses in preterm infants submitted to mechanical ventilation, and to evaluate the clinical, laboratory and radiological patterns of viral infections among hospitalized infants in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) with any kind of acute respiratory failure. Seventy-eight preterm infants were studied from November 2000 to September 2002. The newborns were classified into two groups: with viral infection (Group I) and without viral infection (Group II). Respiratory viruses were diagnosed in 23 preterm infants (29.5%); the most frequent was respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) (14.1%), followed by influenza A virus (10.2%). Rhinorrhea, wheezing, vomiting and diarrhea, pneumonia, atelectasis, and interstitial infiltrate were significantly more frequent in newborns with nosocomial viral infection. There was a correlation between nosocomial viral infection and low values of C-reactive protein. Two patients with mixed infection from Group I died during the hospital stay. In conclusion, RSV was the most frequent virus in these patients. It was observed that, although the majority of viral lower respiratory tract infections had a favorable course, some patients presented a serious and prolonged clinical manifestation, especially when there was concomitant bacterial or fungal infection.