PCR Detection of Respiratory Pathogens in Asymptomatic and Symptomatic Adults

J Clin Microbiol. 2019 Jan 2;57(1):e00716-18. doi: 10.1128/JCM.00716-18. Print 2019 Jan.


The frequency of viral respiratory pathogens in asymptomatic subjects is poorly defined. The aim of this study was to explore the prevalence of respiratory pathogens in the upper airways of asymptomatic adults, compared with a reference population of symptomatic patients sampled in the same centers during the same period. Nasopharyngeal (NP) swab samples were prospectively collected from adults with and without ongoing symptoms of respiratory tract infection (RTI) during 12 consecutive months, in primary care centers and hospital emergency departments, and analyzed for respiratory pathogens by a PCR panel detecting 16 viruses and four bacteria. Altogether, 444 asymptomatic and 75 symptomatic subjects completed sampling and follow-up (FU) at day 7. In the asymptomatic subjects, the detection rate of viruses was low (4.3%), and the most common virus detected was rhinovirus (3.2%). Streptococcus pneumoniae was found in 5.6% of the asymptomatic subjects and Haemophilus influenzae in 1.4%. The only factor independently associated with low viral detection rate in asymptomatic subjects was age ≥65 years (P = 0.04). An increased detection rate of bacteria was seen in asymptomatic subjects who were currently smoking (P < 0.01) and who had any chronic condition (P < 0.01). We conclude that detection of respiratory viruses in asymptomatic adults is uncommon, suggesting that a positive PCR result from a symptomatic patient likely is relevant for ongoing respiratory symptoms. Age influences the likelihood of virus detection among asymptomatic adults, and smoking and comorbidities may increase the prevalence of bacterial pathogens in the upper airways.

Keywords: respiratory pathogens; respiratory viruses; virology.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Asymptomatic Infections / epidemiology
  • Bacteria / genetics
  • Bacteria / isolation & purification*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Nasopharynx / microbiology
  • Nasopharynx / virology
  • Polymerase Chain Reaction
  • Prevalence
  • Prospective Studies
  • Respiratory Tract Infections / diagnosis
  • Respiratory Tract Infections / epidemiology
  • Respiratory Tract Infections / microbiology*
  • Respiratory Tract Infections / virology*
  • Risk Factors
  • Sweden / epidemiology
  • Viruses / genetics
  • Viruses / isolation & purification*