Rhinoviruses and enteroviruses are the major members of the picornavirus genus that cause human disease. We compared the polymerase chain reaction and viral culture for the identification of picornaviruses in nasal aspirates from children during episodes of respiratory symptoms and when asymptomatic and from asymptomatic adults. One hundred eight children, aged 9 to 11 years, completed a year-long study. Within 24 to 48 h of a report of respiratory symptoms, a nasal aspirate was taken in the home. Nasal aspirates were also taken from 65 of the children and from 33 normal adults when they had been free of respiratory symptoms for at least 2 weeks. Picornaviruses were isolated by culture for three passages in Ohio HeLa cells in rolling tubes at 33°C and pH 7.0. For the polymerase chain reaction, duplicate 50-μl samples were amplified with conserved primers from the 5' noncoding region. Picornaviruses generated ~380-bp bands in agarose gel electrophoresis; the specificity of these bands was confirmed by filter hybridization with a conserved internal probe. Picornaviruses were isolated by culture in 47 (46 rhinoviruses) of 292 symptomatic episodes (16%), whereas the polymerase chain reaction identified picornavirus genomic material in 146 episodes (50%), including all but one of the culture-positive episodes. As for asymptomatic samples, eight (12%) children and two (4%) adults were positive by the polymerase chain reaction, whereas only one child's specimen was positive by culture. This polymerase chain reaction assay represents a clear advance in the identification of picornavirus infection, with a detection rate threefold greater than the virus culture method.