Respiratory tract infections involve the throat, sinuses, airways and the lungs. These infections are typically triggered by viruses but can also be caused by bacteria. The infections are one of the main reasons why a doctor is consulted. Common cold is the most common respiratory tract infection.
- Upper respiratory tract infections affect the sinuses, nose and throat.
- Lower respiratory tract infections affect the lungs and airways.
It is important to note that children are more likely to end up with upper respiratory tract infections than adults since they have not established immunity to various viruses that trigger these infections.
How respiratory tract infections (RTI) spread
Respiratory tract infections spread in various ways. If an individual has an infection such as common cold, droplets of fluid that contain the cold virus are released into the air every time the infected individual coughs or sneezes. If these are breathed in by others, they become infected.
Infections can also spread via indirect contact. When an individual with common cold touches his/her nose or eyes and uses an object, the virus can be passed on to another individual if they touch the object. The best way to prevent the spread of infection is to observe good hygiene such as washing hands regularly using warm water and soap.
Upper respiratory tract infections
The usual upper respiratory tract infections include the following:
- Common cold
In most forms of upper respiratory tract infections, cough is the usual symptom. Other symptoms include runny or stuffed nose, headaches, sneezing, sore throat and muscle aches.
Lower respiratory tract infections
The common lower respiratory tract infections include the following:
Just like with upper RTIs, the main symptom of a lower RTI is cough. Nevertheless, it is usually severe and the individual has to bring up mucus and phlegm. Other possible symptoms include chest tightness, rapid breathing, wheezing and breathlessness.
How to manage respiratory tract infections
Always bear in mind that most cases of respiratory tract infections simply pass without the need for treatment and consulting a doctor is no longer required. The symptoms can be managed at home by using over-the-counter pain medications such as ibuprofen or paracetamol, getting enough rest and drinking plenty of fluids.
In most circumstances, antibiotics are not recommended since they are only effective if the infection was triggered by bacteria. The signs and symptoms of an upper respiratory tract infection typically pass within 1-2 weeks.
When to consult a doctor
A doctor should be consulted for further assessment and treatment for the following:
- If the symptoms indicate pneumonia such as coughing up blood-streaked mucus and phlegm
- Preexisting lung, heart, kidney or liver condition
- Long-term lung conditions such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
- Conditions that affects the nervous system such as multiple sclerosis
- Those who have a weakened immune system
- Those who have bronchiectasis or cystic fibrosis
- Persistent cough that lasts for up to 3 weeks, weight loss, chest pain or lumps in the neck