Respiratory tract infections (RTIs) are infections of parts of the body involved in breathing, such as the sinuses, throat, airways or lungs. Most RTIs get better without treatment, but sometimes you may need to see a GP.
Check if you have an RTI
Symptoms of an RTI include:
- a cough – you may bring up mucus (phlegm)
- a stuffy or runny nose
- a sore throat
- muscle aches
- breathlessness, tight chest or wheezing
- a high temperature
- feeling generally unwell
Things you can do yourself
Most RTIs pass within 1 to 2 weeks. You can usually treat your symptoms at home.
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 under 1 year old)
gargle with warm salty water if you have a sore throat (children should not try this)
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
try to stay at home and avoid contact with other people if you have a high temperature or you do not feel well enough to do your normal activities
do not let children breathe in steam from a bowl of hot water as there's a risk of scalding
do not give aspirin to children under 16
do not smoke – it can make your symptoms worse
How to make a hot lemon and honey drink
- Squeeze half a lemon into a mug of boiled water
- Add 1 to 2 teaspoons of honey
- Drink while still warm
Do not give hot drinks to small children.
How to gargle with salt water
- Dissolve half a teaspoon of salt in a glass of warm water – warm water helps salt dissolve
- Gargle with the solution then spit it out – do not swallow it
- 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 are not suitable for children, babies and pregnant women. Your pharmacist can advise you about the best treatment for you or your child.
Non-urgent advice: See a GP if:
- you feel very unwell or your symptoms get worse
- you cough up blood or bloodstained mucus
- you have 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 a 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 will not help
- bacteria (like pneumonia) – a GP may prescribe antibiotics (make sure you complete the whole course as advised by a 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: Use of antibiotics
Antibiotics are only used to treat bacterial infections. They're not used for treating viral infections because they do not 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:
- ask a GP about the annual flu vaccination – find out if you're eligible for the free flu vaccine
- ask if you should have the pneumococcal vaccine – this helps prevent pneumonia
- stop smoking if you smoke
- drink less alcohol
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)|
|Sinusitis (sinus infection)||Bronchiolitis|
|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: 28 April 2021
Next review due: 28 April 2024