Respiratory tract infection

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 (

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.

Upper Respiratory Tract Infections:

The upper respiratory tract includes the sinuses, nasal passages, pharynx, and larynx.
Common upper respiratory tract infections include:

  • the common cold known as nasopharyngitis which is inflammation of the nares, pharynx, hypopharynx, uvula, and tonsils
  • rhinitis which is inflammation of the nasal cavity
  • tonsillitis which is infection of the tonsils and tissues at the back of the throat
  • sinusitis which is infection of the sinuses
  • laryngitis which is 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, breathing difficulty, lethargy and muscle aches.

Lower Respiratory Tract Infections:

Common lower respiratory tract infections include:

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

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.

How Respiratory Infections Spread?

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.

Managing Your Symptoms:

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:

  • You have symptoms of pneumonia such as, if you are coughing up bloody mucus and phlegm
  • you have a pre-existing heart, lung, liver or kidney disease
  • you have cystic fibrosis or bronchiectasis
  • you have a long-term lung condition, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or asthma
  • you have a condition that affects your nervous system, such as multiple sclerosis
  • your cough has persisted for more than three weeks, you have chest pain or if there are any lumps in your neck
  • you are losing weight
  • you have a weakened immune system
  • you are currently taking a type of steroid medication known as oral glucocorticoids such as, prednisolone 
  • you have a history of heart failure
  • you have type 1 diabetes or type 2 diabetes

To help protect against some RTIs, you can take some kind of vaccines.


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