Seasonal and pandemic respiratory viruses such as influenza and the novel coronavirus (SARS-COV-2) currently sweeping the globe have often been described as ‘equal opportunity infectors’, implying little socioeconomic disparity in susceptibility. However, early data from the COVID-19 pandemic has underscored that the burden of respiratory viruses actually reflect and magnify existing socioeconomic inequalities. We review the literature on socioeconomic and racial disparities in acute respiratory infection (ARI), as well as ARI-associated hospitalization and mortality. Our goal is to identify key principles of the relationship between socioeconomic inequality and ARI outcomes, as well as highlighting poorly understood areas that need to be addressed by research and policy in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. We find that there has been descriptive work in this area, but that there is a distinct lack of cohesive methodology in the literature exploring social determinants and ARI. We propose the fundamental cause theory is a useful framework for guiding future research of disparities in ARI and for the design of interventions to alleviate these disparities.