Respiratory tract infections (RTIs)

Respiratory tract infections (RTIs) can affect the sinuses, throat, airways or lungs. Most RTIs get better without treatment, but sometimes you may need to see your GP.

Check if you have an RTI

Symptoms of an RTI include:

  • a cough – you may bring up mucus (phlegm)
  • sneezing
  • a stuffy or runny nose
  • a sore throat
  • headaches
  • muscle aches
  • breathlessness, tight chest or wheezing
  • a high temperature (fever)
  • feeling generally unwell

Things you can do yourself

Most RTIs pass within 1 to 2 weeks. You can usually treat your symptoms at home.

Do

  • get plenty of rest
  • drink lots of water to loosen any mucus and make it easier to cough up
  • drink a hot lemon and honey drink to help soothe a cough (not suitable for babies)
  • gargle with warm salty water if you have a sore throat (children shouldn't try this)
  • use an air humidifier or inhale steam from a bowl of hot water (adults only) – you can add menthol or eucalyptus oil
  • raise your head up while sleeping using extra pillows to make breathing easier and clear your chest of mucus
  • use painkillers to bring down a fever and help ease a sore throat, headaches and muscle pain

Don't

  • let children breathe in steam from a bowl of hot water because of the risk of scalding
  • give aspirin to children under 16
  • smoke – it can make your symptoms worse
How to make a hot lemon and honey drink
  1. Squeeze half a lemon into a mug of boiled water
  2. Add 1 to 2 teaspoons of honey
  3. Drink while still warm

Don't give hot drinks to small children.

How to gargle with salt water
  1. Dissolve half a teaspoon of salt in a glass of warm water – warm water helps salt dissolve
  2. Gargle with the solution then spit it out – don't swallow it
  3. Repeat as often as you like

A pharmacist can help with an RTI

A pharmacist can suggest treatments to help relieve your symptoms, such as decongestants and nasal sprays.

You can also buy cough medicines and throat lozenges, although there's little evidence to show they help.

Some treatments contain paracetamol and ibuprofen. If you're taking these medicines separately, be careful not to take more than the recommended dose.

Certain treatments aren't suitable for children, babies and pregnant women. Your pharmacist can advise you on the best treatment for you or your child.

See a GP if you have an RTI and:

  • you feel very unwell or your symptoms get worse
  • you cough up blood or bloodstained mucus
  • you've had a cough for more than 3 weeks
  • you're pregnant
  • you're over 65
  • you have a weakened immune system – for example, because you have a condition like diabetes or you're having chemotherapy
  • you have a long-term health condition, such as a heart, lung or kidney condition

You may have pneumonia if your symptoms are severe.

Treatment from your GP

Treatment will depend on the cause of your RTI:

  • a virus (like colds) – this usually clears up by itself after a few weeks and antibiotics won't help
  • bacteria (like pneumonia) – your GP may prescribe antibiotics (make sure you complete the whole course as advised by your GP, even if you start to feel better)

Sometimes a sample of your mucus may need to be tested to see what's causing your RTI.

Important

Antibiotics are only used to treat bacterial infections. They're not used for treating viral infections because they don't work for this type of infection.

How to avoid passing RTIs on to others:

  • cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze
  • wash your hands regularly
  • throw away used tissues immediately

How to avoid getting an RTI

If you keep getting RTIs or you're at a high risk of getting one (for example, because you're over the age of 65 or have a serious long-term health condition), you should:

Causes and types of RTIs

RTIs are often spread in the coughs and sneezes of someone with an infection.

There are several different types. They're usually grouped into upper and lower RTIs.

Upper RTIs (sinuses and throat) Lower RTIs (airways and lungs)
Common cold Bronchitis
Sinusitis (sinus infection) Bronchiolitis
Tonsillitis Chest infection
Laryngitis Pneumonia (lung infection)

Flu can be an upper or lower RTI.

Lower RTIs tend to last longer and can be more serious.

Page last reviewed: 12/04/2018
Next review due: 12/04/2021

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