Population-based respiratory research and vaccine efficacy studies have previously required clinic or home visits when a subject had an acute respiratory illness. This method may mean parents are unwilling to enroll their child or report an illness of interest. We conducted a community-based cohort study into respiratory illnesses in 234 pre-school aged children using parent-collected specimens. Between January 2003 and January 2004 there were 563 specimens collected from 730 identified illnesses and these were tested using a panel of respiratory virus polymerase chain reaction (PCR) assays; 409 (73%) were positive for any virus. Specimens were not more likely to be positive when collected by a healthcare worker parent, when they included a throat swab, or when a very good collection technique was reported. A delay from illness onset to specimen collection of up to 5 days did not appear to impact on sensitivity of virus identification, but a delay of six or more days with minor delays in testing saw positivity fall. Combined with daily symptom diary completion and PCR testing, parent-collected specimens are an efficient and acceptable method for the conduct of future vaccine efficacy studies and other community-based respiratory virus research.