Respiratory tract infections 

Introduction 

Cold or flu?

Do you know the difference between a cold and flu? An expert explains the conditions, treatments and remedies available.

Media last reviewed: 11/07/2013

Next review due: 11/07/2015

How to prevent germs from spreading

Cleaning and good hygiene tips to help reduce the number of germs in your home

Respiratory tract infections (RTIs) are any infection of the sinuses, throat, airways or lungs.

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

Respiratory tract infections are believed to be one of the main reasons why people visit their GP or pharmacist. The most widespread respiratory tract infection is the common cold.

Health professionals generally make a distinction between:

  • infections of the upper respiratory tract, which affect the nose, sinuses and throat
  • infections of the lower respiratory tract, which affect the airways and lungs

Children tend to get more upper RTIs than adults because they have not yet built up immunity (resistance) to the many viruses that can cause these infections.

This page:

  • explains how RTIs spread
  • links to detailed information on the common upper and lower RTIs
  • provides advice on caring for your symptoms at home and when you should see your GP

How respiratory infections spread

RTIs can spread in several ways. If you have an infection such as a cold, tiny droplets of fluid containing the cold virus are launched into the air whenever you sneeze or cough. If these are breathed in by someone else, they may also become infected.

Infections can also be 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 the spread of infection is to practice good hygiene, such as regularly washing your hands with soap and warm water.

Read more about preventing germs from spreading.

Upper respiratory tract infections

Common upper respiratory tract infections include:

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 (this 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 younger than two)
  • tuberculosis (persistent bacterial infection of the lungs)

The main symptom of a lower RTI is also a cough, although it is usually more severe and you may bring up phlegm and mucus. Other possible symptoms are a tight feeling in your chest, increased rate of breathing, breathlessness and wheezing.

Caring for your symptoms at home

Most RTIs will pass without the need for treatment and you usually won't need to see your GP. You can treat your symptoms at home by taking over-the-counter painkillers such as paracetamol or ibuprofen, drinking plenty of fluids and resting.

Antibiotics are not recommended for most RTIs because they are only effective if the infection is caused by bacteria.

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

When you should see your GP

It's recommended you visit your GP if:

  • you are feeling very unwell
  • your symptoms suggest that you may have pneumonia, for example if you are coughing up bloody mucus and phlegm
  • you have a pre-existing heart, lung, liver or kidney condition
  • you have a condition that affects your nervous system, such as multiple sclerosis
  • you have cystic fibrosis
  • you have a weakened immune system
  • you have a chronic lung condition, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or asthma

It's also recommended you visit your GP if you are 65 or over and have at least two of the factors listed below, or you are 80 or over and have one of the factors listed below:

  • you have been admitted to hospital at some point during the past year
  • you have diabetes
  • you have a history of heart failure
  • you are taking a type of steroid medication called glucocorticoid

You can also ask your GP about any vaccines you can have to help protect against some RTIs. See the vaccinations guide for more information about these.

Page last reviewed: 04/04/2013

Next review due: 04/04/2015

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