© 2017 The Author(s). Mucosal surfaces, such as the respiratory epithelium, are directly exposed to the external environment and therefore, are highly susceptible to viral infection. As a result, the respiratory tract has evolved a variety of innate and adaptive immune defenses in order to prevent viral infection or promote the rapid destruction of infected cells and facilitate the clearance of the infecting virus. Successful adaptive immune responses often lead to a functional state of immune memory, in which memory lymphocytes and circulating antibodies entirely prevent or lessen the severity of subsequent infections with the same virus. This is also the goal of vaccination, although it is difficult to vaccinate in a way that mimics respiratory infection. Consequently, some vaccines lead to robust systemic immune responses, but relatively poor mucosal immune responses that protect the respiratory tract. In addition, adaptive immunity is not without its drawbacks, as overly robust inflammatory responses may lead to lung damage and impair gas exchange or exacerbate other conditions, such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Thus, immune responses to respiratory viral infections must be strong enough to eliminate infection, but also have mechanisms to limit damage and promote tissue repair in order to maintain pulmonary homeostasis. Here, we will discuss the components of the adaptive immune system that defend the host against respiratory viral infections.