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Viral infections are initiated by attachment of the virus to host cell surface receptors, including sialic acid-containing glycans. It is now possible to rapidly identify specific glycan receptors using glycan array screening, to define atomic-level structures of virus-glycan complexes and to alter the glycan-binding site to determine the function of glycan engagement in viral disease. This Review highlights general principles of virus-glycan interactions and provides specific examples of sialic acid binding by viruses with stalk-like attachment proteins, including influenza virus, reovirus, adenovirus and rotavirus. Understanding virus-glycan interactions is essential to combating viral infections and designing improved viral vectors for therapeutic applications.