Also Known As
RP Panel
Respiratory Virus Profile
Multiplex Respiratory Panel
Multi-pathogen Molecular Assay
Syndromic Multiplex Panel
This article was last reviewed on
This article waslast modified on April 10, 2019.
At a Glance
Why Get Tested?

To determine whether you have a respiratory infection due to certain bacteria or viruses; to help guide management of a respiratory infection

When To Get Tested?

Not everyone with symptoms of a respiratory infection (e.g., fever, aches, sore throat and cough) is tested. This panel is primarily performed when you are seriously ill, hospitalized, and/or at an increased risk for a severe infection with complications or multiple infections (co-infections).

Sample Required?

A sample is collected from the back of your nose and throat (nasopharyngeal swab). This is done by having you tip your head back, then a swab is gently inserted through a nostril until resistance is met (about 1 to 2 inches), then rotated several times and withdrawn. This may tickle a bit and cause the eyes to tear. Alternatively, a nasal wash or aspirate may be collected. A syringe is used to push a small amount of sterile saline into the nose, then gentle suction is applied (for the aspirate) or the resulting fluid is collected into a cup (for a wash).

Test Preparation Needed?

None

What is being tested?

A variety of viruses and some bacteria can cause infections of the respiratory tract. These disease-causing microbes are called pathogens. The respiratory pathogens panel tests for the presence of multiple disease-causing microbes in a single respiratory sample.

While a wide variety of viruses and bacteria can cause respiratory infections, the list of common ones is much smaller. A healthcare practitioner may have an idea about the cause based upon the season, your signs and symptoms and medical history, and in some cases recent travel, but will not be able to positively identify the microbe without testing.

The respiratory pathogen panel is a molecular test that detects the genetic material (RNA or DNA) of some of the more common pathogens. It can identify co-infections (more than one microbe causing infection) and identify microbes that might be missed with traditional testing, such as culture. Some panels can also identify subtypes or strains of microbes. Results of a respiratory pathogen panel may be available within a few hours, compared to a few days with some traditional testing.

The number and type of microbes tested depends on the specific panel used. Some panels are limited to testing for a few types of viruses that are the most common causes of respiratory infections, while other panels are more comprehensive and test for a wider variety of respiratory viruses and bacteria in a single sample.

Examples of some of the microbes that might be tested include (these can vary from one panel to another):

Viruses:

Bacteria:

Respiratory infections

Respiratory infections are common and can be very contagious, spreading from person to person through coughing, sneezing, and contact with contaminated surfaces. People may be infectious before their symptoms begin to several days after they become sick.

Some examples of common respiratory infections include:

  • Common colds—viral infections that cause sneezing, coughing, sore throat and runny or stuffy nose
  • Bronchitis—infections can cause inflammation of the airways leading to the lungs (bronchial tubes) with symptoms such as coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath
  • Croup—an infection of the windpipe and airways leading to the lungs that causes hoarseness and a cough that sounds like a seal or dog
  • Pneumonia—infection of the lower respiratory tract that can cause coughing, fever, chills, muscle aches and shortness of breath

Viral respiratory infections caused by influenza A or B (the flu) and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) are largely seasonal in the United States, with the cold and flu season running from late fall through early spring. During each season there are multiple strains of influenza and a variety of other viruses causing very similar "flu-like" symptoms, making it difficult to diagnose the cause of infection based on symptoms and medical history alone. Some viruses and bacteria can cause respiratory infections and complications year-round.

Respiratory infections can cause a spectrum of illness, from mild to severe, and can sometimes be fatal. All ages can be affected, but the highest infection rates and the most severe complications are typically seen in the very young, in people with weakened (compromised) immune systems, and especially in the elderly. People in close contact with one another or in confined spaces, such as hospitals, nursing homes, schools, and the military, are also at increased risk of infection.

The number of people with respiratory infections varies from year to year. For instance, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):

  • Influenza: the number of cases of influenza illness during the 2017-2018 season was the highest it had been since 2009. The CDC estimates that 48.8 million people became sick with influenza, about 959,000 were hospitalized, and 79,400 died.
  • RSV: on average there are 2.1 million outpatient visits and 57,527 hospitalizations in children under the age of 5, and 177,000 hospitalizations and 14,000 deaths in adults older than the age of 65.
  • Common cold: millions of cases of the common cold occur each year (typically caused by rhinoviruses, but also by other viruses included in the respiratory pathogen panel).
Accordion Title
Common Questions
  • How is the test used?

    Respiratory pathogens panels may be used to help diagnose the cause of your respiratory infection and help guide treatment. They are used primarily for people who are seriously ill, hospitalized, and/or are at an increased risk for a severe infection with complications or multiple infections at the same time (co-infection).

    Many individuals with respiratory infections are never tested because:

    • Many respiratory infections in otherwise healthy people resolve with no specific treatment and with only supportive care (e.g., getting plenty of rest and drinking plenty of fluids).
    • When it is strongly suspected you have the flu (it is flu season and the flu is widespread in your community), your healthcare practitioner may make the diagnosis based on your symptoms and treat you with an antiviral medication.
       

    For people with serious illness or at risk of complications, respiratory pathogen panels can help determine whether an infection is due to a virus or bacteria that can be treated with medication.

    • The panels can diagnose the flu and rule out other illnesses. This can reduce the chances of people using unnecessary antibiotics (which are not effective for viral infections), while increasing the chances that they will receive anti-viral therapy early in the illness, when it is most effective.
    • Some panels can diagnose infections caused by bacteria that may require treatment with antibiotics.
       

    Respiratory pathogen panels are not used to test all respiratory infections or symptomatic patients. Other types of tests include:

    • Individual molecular tests for influenza and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and other respiratory viruses and bacteria may be performed at the point of care, such as a healthcare practitioner's office or medical clinic.
    • Rapid antigen tests for influenza and RSV may also be at the point of care during cold and flu season, even though they can be less sensitive than newer molecular tests.
       

    Since the respiratory pathogen panels are relatively new and relatively expensive to perform, laboratories and healthcare providers are still in the process of determining how to use them to provide the optimum care for patients. Additional tests may be done if a microbe is not identified by the panel and/or if there is a suspicion of a microbe other than those included in the panel.

  • When is it ordered?

    A respiratory pathogen panel may be ordered when you are seriously ill or at increased risk of complications and have signs and symptoms associated with an upper respiratory infection, especially if they are prolonged and do not resolve without treatment. Signs and symptoms may include:

    • Coughing, sneezing
    • Stuffy or runny nose
    • Sore throat
    • Headache
    • Weakness, fatigue
    • Muscle aches
    • Fever, chills
    • Wheezing, difficulty breathing
    • Low appetite
    • In some cases, diarrhea and vomiting
  • What does the test result mean?

    Results are typically interpreted in conjunction with your signs and symptoms and medical history.

    A positive result means that the microbe detected is likely causing your signs and symptoms. If more than one result is positive, you may be infected with more than one microbe (co-infection). The following are some exceptions:

    • The panels detect the presence of genetic material of the microbes and do not distinguish between dead and living ones. Sometimes, a positive result reflects the presence of dead microbes that are not the cause of infection.
    • Sometimes, a positive test result for multiple microbes may mean that one of the microbes is in your respiratory tract but is not the cause of the current symptoms.
    • Rarely, a result may be positive when the microbe is not present (false positive). Also, a result may be positive when a different microbe is present. Although uncommon, this can happen when the microbes are genetically similar.
       

    A negative result means that the microbes tested were not detected and your signs and symptoms may be caused by a virus or bacterium not included in the panel or by another condition. The following are some exceptions:

    • Viruses can be shed intermittently. This means that the number of viruses present in your respiratory sample can vary greatly during an infection. A negative result may mean that the microbe causing your infection was not present or not present in high enough numbers to be detected in the sample that was collected.
    • It is also important that the sample is collected properly to pick up any microbes that might be present. The nasopharyngeal swab should touch the back of your nose and throat and may bring tears to your eyes when done correctly.
    • Rarely, you may have a respiratory infection caused by one of the microbes, but the test does not detect it because the amount of viral or bacterial genetic material present in your sample was too small.
       

    If results are negative and symptoms persist and/or if suspicion of an infection remains high, then other tests may be done to help establish a diagnosis.

  • Like a flu test or strep test, can this test be performed in my healthcare practitioner's office?

    In general, no. It requires specialized equipment and expertise. It may be performed in a local laboratory if it is offered or may need to be sent to a reference laboratory. Individual molecular tests are, however, becoming increasingly available in some healthcare practitioners' offices.

  • What are some traditional tests for respiratory infections?

    Traditional testing has included viral or bacterial cultures or testing for the viruses or bacteria one at a time (and sometimes needing multiple samples) using rapid tests and antigen tests. These tests are useful, but some bacteria can be hard to grow successfully in culture, and viral cultures are not routinely available in most clinical laboratories. Many of these tests are also labor-intensive, and it may take 2-3 days or more for results. The rapid tests and antigen tests are quicker, but they may not be as good at detecting infections as molecular methods. Many laboratories are adopting molecular tests that detect genetic material of microbes as the preferred way to diagnose a respiratory infection.

  • What other lab tests might be done?

    Since there are many causes of respiratory infections, and respiratory pathogen panels test for upper respiratory infections, they may be used in conjunction with other tests, such as a bacterial sputum culture, Gram stain, or sometimes a viral culture to help confirm a diagnosis and guide treatment decisions.

  • Why would my healthcare provider order additional tests?

    Additional testing may be done to confirm a positive result using another method, to perform susceptibility testing when the infection is caused by bacteria, or because the cause of your symptoms has not yet been identified.

  • Can I test negative and still have a respiratory infection?

    Yes. You can have an infection but a negative result if:

    • The test does not detect the virus or bacterial strain causing your infection
    • There was not enough genetic material in the sample to allow it to be detected
    • The microbe is a new strain that the test cannot reliably detect
    • Your sample was not properly collected
  • How can I prevent a respiratory infection?

    Not every respiratory infection can be prevented, but you can take precautions, such as avoiding close contact with sick people, washing your hands thoroughly and often with soap and water or using a hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol, and cleaning and disinfecting surfaces that are touched often and by many people, such as door knobs, counters, toys, etc.

    To help prevent the flu, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends annual influenza vaccination for everyone 6 months and older. For more information from the CDC, see Related Content below.

  • Is there anything else I should know?

    When a healthcare practitioner has a strong suspicion as to the cause of an infection, then a test for a specific microbe may be ordered instead of a panel. Some examples include:

    • A person has symptoms of whooping cough (cause by Bordetella pertussis infection) and an outbreak is happening in the community; a pertussis test may be performed.
    • A baby has symptoms and RSV and influenza have been identified in the community; those individual tests may be performed.

You may be able to find your test results on your laboratory's website or patient portal. However, you are currently at Lab Tests Online. You may have been directed here by your lab's website in order to provide you with background information about the test(s) you had performed. You will need to return to your lab's website or portal, or contact your healthcare practitioner in order to obtain your test results.

Lab Tests Online is an award-winning patient education website offering information on laboratory tests. The content on the site, which has been reviewed by laboratory scientists and other medical professionals, provides general explanations of what results might mean for each test listed on the site, such as what a high or low value might suggest to your healthcare practitioner about your health or medical condition.

The reference ranges for your tests can be found on your laboratory report. They are typically found to the right of your results.

If you do not have your lab report, consult your healthcare provider or the laboratory that performed the test(s) to obtain the reference range.

Laboratory test results are not meaningful by themselves. Their meaning comes from comparison to reference ranges. Reference ranges are the values expected for a healthy person. They are sometimes called "normal" values. By comparing your test results with reference values, you and your healthcare provider can see if any of your test results fall outside the range of expected values. Values that are outside expected ranges can provide clues to help identify possible conditions or diseases.

While accuracy of laboratory testing has significantly evolved over the past few decades, some lab-to-lab variability can occur due to differences in testing equipment, chemical reagents, and techniques. This is a reason why so few reference ranges are provided on this site. It is important to know that you must use the range supplied by the laboratory that performed your test to evaluate whether your results are "within normal limits."

For more information, please read the article Reference Ranges and What They Mean.

View Sources

(2017 July 18). White Paper: Clinical Utility of Multiplex Tests for Respiratory and GI Pathogens. American Society for Microbiology. Available online at https://www.asm.org/Articles/Policy/MULTIPLEX-WHITE-PAPER-CLINICAL-UTILITY-OF-MULTIPLE. Accessed on 1/12/19.

Das, S. et. al. (2018 October 18). Laboratory Diagnosis of Respiratory Tract Infections in Children – the State of the Art. Front Microbiol. 2018; 9: 2478. Available online at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6200861/. Accessed on 1/12/19.

Gamache, J. et. al. (2018 October 8, Updated). Bacterial Pneumonia. Medscape. Available online at https://emedicine.medscape.com/article/300157-overview. Accessed on 1/12/19.

Mosenifar, Z. et. al. (2018 July 24, Updated). Viral Pneumonia. Medscape Pulmonology. Available online at https://emedicine.medscape.com/article/300455-overview. Accessed on 1/12/19.

Bocka, J. et. al. (2018 November 14, Updated). Pertussis. Medscape Pediatrics General Medicine. Available online at https://emedicine.medscape.com/article/967268-overview. Accessed on 1/12/19.

Krilov, L. (2018 December 10, Updated). Respiratory Syncytial Virus Infection. Medscape Pediatrics General Medicine. Available online at https://emedicine.medscape.com/article/971488-overview. Accessed on 1/12/19.

Parija, S. and Marrie, T. (2017 December 13, Updated). Parainfluenza Virus. Medscape Infectious Diseases. Available online at https://emedicine.medscape.com/article/224708-overview. Accessed on 1/12/19.

Brook, I. et. al. (2018 October 30, Updated). Pediatric Influenza. Medscape Pediatrics General Medicine. Available online at https://emedicine.medscape.com/article/972269-overview. Accessed on 1/12/19.

Hguyen, H. et. al. (2018 October 26, Updated). Influenza. Medscape Infectious Diseases. Available online at https://emedicine.medscape.com/article/219557-overview. Accessed on 1/12/19.

Gompf, S. et. al. (2018 May 15, Updated). Adenovirus. Medscape Infectious Diseases. Available online at https://emedicine.medscape.com/article/211738-overview. Accessed on 1/12/19.

Buensalido, J. and Valencia, J. (2017 September 11, Updated). Rhinovirus (RV) Infection (Common Cold). Medscape Infectious Diseases. Available online at https://emedicine.medscape.com/article/227820-overview. Accessed on 1/12/19.

Baluch, A. (2017 January 18, Updated). Human Metapneumovirus. Medscape Infectious Diseases. Available online at https://emedicine.medscape.com/article/237691-overview. Accessed on 1/12/19.

Babady, N. et. al. (2018 February). Multicenter Evaluation of the ePlex Respiratory Pathogen Panel for the Detection of Viral and Bacterial Respiratory Tract Pathogens in Nasopharyngeal Swabs. J Clin Microbiol. 2018 Feb; 56(2): e01658-17. Available online at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5786739/. Accessed on 1/12/19.

Brendish, N. et. al. (2017 February 6). Molecular point-of-care testing for respiratory viruses versus routine clinical care in adults with acute respiratory illness presenting to secondary care: a pragmatic randomised controlled trial protocol (ResPOC). BMC Infect Dis. 2017; 17: 128. Available online at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5294894/. Accessed on 1/12/19.

Li, J. et. al. (2018 October 11). Rapid detection of respiratory organisms with the FilmArray respiratory panel in a large children’s hospital in China. BMC Infect Dis. 2018; 18: 510. Available online at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6180626/. Accessed on 1/12/19.

Alp, A. (2018 November 7). Advancement in POCT Molecular Testing: The Multiplex PCR POCT Devices for Infectious Diseases. EJIFCC. 2018 Nov; 29(3): 205–209. Available online at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6247132/. Accessed on 1/12/19.

Van Rijn, A. et. al. (2017 December 8). Clinical implications of rapid ePlex® Respiratory Pathogen Panel testing compared to laboratory-developed real-time PCR. Eur J Clin Microbiol Infect Dis. 2018; 37(3): 571–577. Available online at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5816761/. Accessed on 1/12/19.

(2018 December 18, Updated). Estimated Influenza Illnesses, Medical visits, Hospitalizations, and Deaths in the United States — 2017–2018 influenza season. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Available online at https://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/burden/2017-2018.htm. Accessed on 1/27/19.

Azadeh, N. (2018 April 5). Comparison of Respiratory Pathogen Detection in Upper versus Lower Respiratory Tract Samples Using the BioFire FilmArray Respiratory Panel in the Immunocompromised Host. Can Respir J. 2018; 2018: 2685723. Available online at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5907482/. Accessed on 1/12/19.

Hand, J. et. al. (2018). Severe Respiratory Illness Outbreak Associated With Human Coronavirus NL63 in a Long-term Care Facility. Medscape Emerging Infectious Diseases. Available online at https://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/903307. Accessed on 1/12/19.

Bono, M. (2018 December 28, Updated). Mycoplasmal Pneumonia. Medscape Pulmonology. Available online at https://emedicine.medscape.com/article/1941994-overview Accessed on 1/12/19.

Messacar, K. et. al. (2017 February 22). Implementation of Rapid Molecular Infectious Disease Diagnostics: the Role of Diagnostic and Antimicrobial Stewardship. J Clin Microbiol. 2017 Mar; 55(3): 715–723. Available online at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5328439/. Accessed on 1/12/19.

McKay, S. et. al. (2018 November 16). Increase in Acute Flaccid Myelitis — United States, 2018. CDC MMWR Weekly 67(45);1273–1275. Available online at https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/67/wr/mm6745e1.htm?c_cid=journal_search_promotion_2018. Accessed on 1/12/19.

(2017 August 7, Reviewed). Best Practices for Healthcare Professionals on the Use of Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) for Diagnosing Pertussis. CDC. Available online at https://www.cdc.gov/pertussis/clinical/diagnostic-testing/diagnosis-pcr-bestpractices.html. Accessed on 1/12/19.

Juretschko, S. (2017 October 24). Confronting the challenges of influenza-like illness. MLO Online Continuing Education. Available online at https://www.mlo-online.com/confronting-challenges-influenza-like-illness. Accessed on 1/12/19.

(2018 July 31, Updated). Human Metapneumovirus (HMPV) Clinical Features. CDC National Respiratory and Enteric Virus Surveillance System (NREVSS). Available online at https://www.cdc.gov/surveillance/nrevss/hmpv/clinical.html. Accessed on 1/12/19.

Ramanan, P. et. al. (2018 January). Syndromic Panel-Based Testing in Clinical Microbiology. Clin Microbiol Rev. 2018 Jan; 31(1): e00024-17. Available online at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5740973/. Accessed on 1/12/19.

(2018 February 20, Updated). Information on Rapid Molecular Assays, RT-PCR, and other Molecular Assays for Diagnosis of Influenza Virus Infection. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Available online at https://www.cdc.gov/flu/professionals/diagnosis/molecular-assays.htm. Accessed on 1/27/19.

(2018 June 26, Updated). Respiratory Syncytial Virus Infection (RSV) Trends and Surveillance. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Available online at https://www.cdc.gov/rsv/research/us-surveillance.html. Accessed on 1/27/19.

(2018 February 12, Updated). Common Colds: Protect Yourself and Others. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Available online at https://www.cdc.gov/features/rhinoviruses/. Accessed on 1/27/19.

(March 7, 2016) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. When & How to Wash Your Hands. Available online at https://www.cdc.gov/handwashing/when-how-handwashing.html. Accessed April 2019.

(12/04/2014) Cleveland Clinic. Childhood Respiratory Infections and Other Illnesses. Available online at https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/4022-childhood-respiratory-infections-and-other-illnesses. Accessed April 2019.

Ask a Laboratory Scientist

This form enables patients to ask specific questions about lab tests. Your questions will be answered by a laboratory scientist as part of a voluntary service provided by one of our partners, American Society for Clinical Laboratory Science. Please allow 2-3 business days for an email response from one of the volunteers on the Consumer Information Response Team.

Country
Disclaimer
Thank you for using the Consumer Information Response Service ("the Service") to inquire about the meaning of your lab test results.  The Service is provided free of charge by the American Society for Clinical Laboratory Science, which is one of many laboratory organizations that supports Lab Tests Online.
Please note that information provided through this free Service is not intended to be medical advice and should not be relied on as such. Although the laboratory provides the largest single source of objective, scientific data on patient status, it is only one part of a complex biological picture of health or disease. As professional clinical laboratory scientists, our goal is to assist you in understanding the purpose of laboratory tests and the general meaning of your laboratory results. It is important that you communicate with your physician so that together you can integrate the pertinent information, such as age, ethnicity, health history, signs and symptoms, laboratory and other procedures (radiology, endoscopy, etc.), to determine your health status. The information provided through this Service is not intended to substitute for such consultations with your physician nor specific medical advice to your health condition.
By submitting your question to this Service, you agree to waive, release, and hold harmless the American Society for Clinical Laboratory Science and its affiliates or their past or present officers, directors, employees, agents, and Service volunteers (collectively referred to as "ASCLS") and the American Association  for Clinical Chemistry and its affiliates or their past or present officers, directors, employees, agents, and Service volunteers (collectively referred to as "AACC") from any legal claims, rights, or causes of action you may have in connection with the responses provided to the questions that you submit to the Service.
AACC, ASCLS and its Service volunteers disclaim any liability arising out of your use of this Service or for any adverse outcome from your use of the information provided by this Service for any reason, including but not limited to any misunderstanding or misinterpretation of the information provided through this Service.