The ecology of viruses has been studied only in a limited number of rivers and streams. In light of a recent re-appraisal of the global fluvial surface area, issues such as abundance and production, host mortality and the influence of suspended particles and biofilms are addressed. Viral life cycles, potential impacts of viruses on water biochemistry and carbon flow, and viral diversity are considered. Variability in trophic levels along with the heterogeneous nature and hydrological dynamics of fluvial environments suggest a prevailingly physical control of virus-related processes under lotic conditions and more biological control under lentic conditions. Viral lysis likely contributes to a pool of rapidly cycling carbon in environments typically characterized by high proportions of recalcitrant terrestrial carbon. On average, 33.6% (equalling 0.605 Pg C year−1) of the globally respired carbon from fluvial systems may pass through a viral loop. Virus distribution and the proportion of organic material in horizontal transport versus processes in retention zones remain to be determined in detail. The need for up-scaling the contribution of virus-related processes in fluvial systems is of global relevance. Further, the role of climate change and the effect of anthropogenic alterations of fluvial systems on viruses require attention. The identification of these considerable knowledge gaps should foster future research efforts.