Respiratory virus infections cause a significant number of hospitalization and deaths globally. This study investigated the association between single and multiple respiratory virus infections and risk of admission to a general ward, intensive care unit or death in patients aged 0–105 years (mean ± s.d. = 24·4 ± 24·1 years), from North West England, that were tested for respiratory virus infections between January 2007 and June 2012. The majority of infections were in children aged ⩽5 years. Dual or multiple infections occurred in 10·4% (1214/11 715) of patients, whereas single infection occurred in 89·6% (10 501/11 715). Rhinovirus was the most common co-infecting virus (occurring in 69·5%; 844/1214 of co-infections). In a multivariate logistic regression model, multiple infections were associated with an increased risk of admission to a general ward [odds ratio (OR) 1·43, 95% confidence interval (CI) 1·2–1·7, P < 0·0001]. On the other hand, patients with respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and human parainfluenza virus types 1–3 (hPIV1–3), as a single infection, had a higher risk of being admitted to a general ward (OR 1·49, 95% CI 1·28–1·73, P < 0·0001 and OR 1·34, 95% CI 1·003–1·8, P = 0·05, respectively); admitted to an intensive-care unit or dying (OR 1·5, 95% CI 1·20–2·0, P = 0·001 and OR 1·60, 95% CI 1·02–2·40, P = 0·04, respectively). This result emphasizes the importance of RSV, hPIV and mixed infections and calls for research on vaccines, drugs and diagnostic tests targeting these respiratory viruses.