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Respiratory tract infections


Respiratory tract infections or RTIs as they are often called, are any infection of the sinuses, throat, airways or lungs.

They're usually caused by viruses, but can be caused by bacteria.

RTIs are one of the main reasons why people visit a doctor or a chemist in India The common cold is the most commonly reported RTI!

Doctors like to make a distinction between:

  • Upper Respiratory Tract Infections – which affect the nose, sinuses (air-filled cavities within the bones of the face and around the nose and eyes and throat)
  • Lower Respiratory Tract Infections – which affect the airways and lungs

Children tend to get more upper RTIs than adults because of a relatively weaker immunity to the viruses that can cause these infections.

How do respiratory infections spread?

RTIs can spread in several ways. If you are suffering from cold, tiny droplets of fluid containing the virus are released into the air whenever you sneeze or cough. Others who breathe it in may also become infected.

Infections also spread through indirect contact. For example, if you have a cold and you touch your nose or eyes before touching an object or surface, the virus may be passed to someone else when they touch that object or surface.

The best way to prevent spreading infections is to practise good hygiene, such as regularly washing your hands with soap and warm water.

Upper respiratory tract infections

Common upper respiratory tract infections include:

  • common cold
  • tonsillitis – infection of the tonsils and tissues at the back of the throat
  • sinusitis – infection of the sinuses
  • laryngitis – infection of the larynx (voice box)
  • flu

A cough is the most common symptom of an upper RTI. Other symptoms include headaches, a stuffy or runny nose, a sore throat, sneezing and muscle aches.

Lower respiratory tract infections

Common lower RTIs include:

  • flu – which can affect either the upper or lower respiratory tract
  • bronchitis – infection of the airways
  • pneumonia – infection of the lungs
  • bronchiolitis – an infection of the small airways that affects babies and children aged under two
  • tuberculosis – persistent bacterial infection of the lungs

As with upper RTIs, the main symptom of a lower RTI is a cough. However, it's usually more severe and you may bring up phlegm (Thick, sticky, substance secreted by the respiratory tract, during a respiratory infection). Other symptoms include feeling of tightness in your chest, an, breathlessness and wheezing.

How can you manage your symptoms at home?

In most cases you don’t need any treatment and you won't usually need to see your GP. Taking over-the-counter painkillers such as paracetamol or ibuprofen, drinking plenty of fluids and resting should be enough.

In most cases, antibiotics aren't recommended because they're only effective if the infection is caused by bacteria.

The symptoms of an upper RTI usually pass within one to two weeks.

When should you visit your doctor?

Visit your GP doctor :

  • If symptoms are persistent
  • If you have symptoms that are suggestive of pneumonia –coughing up of bloody mucus and phlegm
  • you have a pre-existing heart, lung, liver or kidney condition
  • you have a long-term lung condition, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or asthma
  • you have a weakened immune system
  • your cough has persisted for more than three weeks, you're losing weight, you have chest pain or fever
  • if you're over 65 years of age and you have a cough, or you've been admitted to hospital at some point during the past year or other conditions like
  • Diabetes
  • history of heart failure
  • you're currently taking a type of steroid medication known as oral glucocorticoids – for example, prednisolone

Ask your doctor about any vaccines you can have to help protect against some RTIs.