Respiratory tract infection
A respiratory tract infection is any infection of the sinuses, throat, airways or lungs. It is usually caused by a virus.
Respiratory tract infections (RTIs) 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 colds.
- 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, cough or speak. If these are breathed in by someone else, they may also become infected.
Infections can also be spread through direct and indirect contact. For example, if you have a cold and you touch your nose or eyes before touching someone else, you may pass the virus on to them.
Upper respiratory tract infections
Common upper respiratory tract infections include:
- the common cold
- tonsillitis (infection of the tonsils and tissues at the back of the throat)
- sinusitis (infection of the sinuses)
- laryngitis (infection of the larynx, or voicebox)
- influenza (flu)
Lower respiratory tract infections
Common lower RTIs include:
- influenza (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 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, drinking plenty of fluids and resting.
Antibiotics are not usually recommended for treating RTIs, because most are not caused by bacteria.
The symptoms of an upper RTI usually pass within one to two weeks.
When you should see your GP
It is recommended that you visit your GP if:
- your symptoms suggest that you may have pneumonia, for example if you are coughing up bloody mucus and phlegm
- you are feeling very unwell
- 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 worsening chronic lung condition, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or asthma
It is also recommended that 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: