Updated: December 2, 2017
Any of a number of infectious diseases involving the respiratory tract is known as Respiratory tract infection (RTI). This is further classified as an upper respiratory tract infection (URI or URTI) or a lower respiratory tract infection (LRI or LRTI).
Upper respiratory tract infections affect the nose, sinuses and throat where as lower respiratory tract infections affect the airways and lungs. These are usually caused by viruses, but can be caused by bacteria also. Because children have not built up immunity or resistance to the many viruses that can cause these infections, they are more prone to upper RTIs than adults.
The upper respiratory tract includes the sinuses, nasal passages, pharynx, and larynx.
Common upper respiratory tract infections include:
A cough is the most common symptom of an upper RTI. Other symptoms include headaches, a stuffy or runny nose, a sore throat, sneezing, breathing difficulty, lethargy and muscle aches.
Common lower respiratory tract infections include:
The main symptom of a lower RTI is a cough which usually gets more severe over time and you may bring up phlegm and mucus. Other possible symptoms are a tight feeling in your chest, an increased rate of breathing, breathlessness and wheezing.
Most often, respiratory infection is contagious and can spread from person to person by inhaling respiratory droplets from coughing or sneezing. The transmission can also occur by touching the nose or mouth by hand or other object exposed to the virus.
The best way to prevent spreading infections is to practise good hygiene, such as regularly washing your hands with soap and warm water.
Most of the symptoms of an upper RTI usually pass within one to two weeks. In most cases, antibiotics are not recommended as they are only effective if the infection is caused by bacteria. You can treat your symptoms of upper RTIs at home by taking over-the-counter painkillers such as paracetamol or ibuprofen, drinking plenty of fluids and resting.
But when you have lower RTIs you need to consult your doctor. You should consult your doctor if you have a cough and two or more of the following factors:
To help protect against some RTIs, you can take some kind of vaccines.