Despite the clinical importance of influenza virus in pediatric respiratory infections, the optimal set of diagnostic tests to use when conducting studies using archival samples is not clear. In this study, we compared diagnostic tests for influenza virus in 75 children younger than 5 years of age who presented with symptomatic respiratory infection during one of four influenza seasons, had negative viral cultures for other respiratory pathogens, and had both an archival nasal aspirate obtained at the time of illness and serology spanning that influenza season. For all eligible children, we compared the results of viral culture performed at the time of collection with serology and PCR of archival nasal aspirates. Using real-time viral culture as the "gold standard," the test characteristics of PCR of archival nasal aspirates (sensitivity, 82%; specificity, 100%) and serology (sensitivity, 82%; specificity, 87%) were similar. The relatively low sensitivity of PCR of archival nasal samples in this study compared to that of PCR of fresh samples in a previous study suggests that RNA degradation occurred despite storage of the specimens at -70 degrees C. RNA degradation would also explain why only 11 (52%) of 21 archival nasal samples that had positive influenza virus cultures at the time of collection had positive repeat cultures in the summer of 2000. Thus, in archival specimens stored at -70 degrees C, PCR was more sensitive than viral culture. However, testing of fresh specimens had the highest yield in this study. Studies of optimal methods for specimen storage are needed.