Respiratory infections and viral contagion are more relevant today than they’ve ever been because of the COVID-19 pandemic and all it has brought on the public healthcare system and society.
It’s important to understand the basics of respiratory tract infections and how to manage, treat, and prevent them.
The most common respiratory tract infection is the common cold. Yet, some of these infections are simple, and some are more complex with increased symptomatology.
In what follows, we’ll be detailing several types of respiratory tract infections, their causes, symptoms, and available treatment and prevention interventions.
Characteristics Of Respiratory Tract Infections
Respiratory tract infections are infections of the upper and lower respiratory tract, compromising the sinuses, throat, and lungs.
Upper respiratory infections involve the sinuses, nose, and throat, while lower respiratory tract infections involve the trachea, bronchi, and lungs.
The respiratory tract comprises the nose, throat, pharynx, larynx, and bronchi. When compromised by infection, several symptoms develop, such as difficulty breathing and coughing.
Both viruses and bacteria can cause respiratory tract infections as they enter the respiratory system through the nose or mouth via breathing. In addition, some bacteria remain in the respiratory system that can overgrow and cause infection.
The Following are Some Common Types of Respiratory Tract Infections:
- Common Cold
The previous infections are categorized as upper respiratory tract infections or URIs.
There are also lower respiratory tract infections, which include pneumonia, tuberculosis, and COVID pneumonia.
Pneumonia is an infection that directly impacts the lungs and is known for causing severe symptoms of coughing, fever, aches, pains, chills, and difficulty breathing.
Patients with pneumonia are affected by the inflammation of the lungs brought on by viral or bacterial infection. As a result, the air sacs of the lungs will fill up with purulent material in many cases causing the symptoms of cough with sputum production.
Tuberculosis is a severe bacterial infection of the lungs that is most prevalent in developing countries. If untreated, the infection has a very high death rate. The condition can also spread to other areas of the body.
COVID pneumonia, caused by the COVID-19 virus, can develop into severe illness, leading to fluid-filled lungs that cause difficulty with oxygenation. In addition, a major immune cascade can occur in some individuals, which can lead to a high death rate in such cases. Unfortunately, it has been difficult to determine why some individuals have a minor illness with COVID-19 while others have significant complications.
The COVID vaccine has been used since the end of 2020 and has been helpful to decrease overall cases along with natural immunity.
Signs and Symptoms of Respiratory Tract Infections
While some respiratory tract infections are very mild and resolve in just a few days, other infections can become quite persistent, causing severe symptoms that require further attention and relief. In some cases, prolonged symptoms can indicate that a second new respiratory virus has developed, which can happen in an especially dramatic cold and flu season.
The Following are Some of the Most Common Signs and Symptoms of respiratory tract infections:
- Shortness of Breath
- Persistent Cough
- Sinus Pain and Congestion
- Fever and Headache
- Fatigue and Lethargy
- Coughing Up Sputum
- Sore throat
As an infection becomes more severe, patients are likely to experience worsening symptoms such as chest pain, difficulty breathing, wheezing, aches, pains, and chills.
Treating and Preventing Respiratory Tract Infections
Most treatment for respiratory tract infections is directed at symptom relief.
While most of these conditions, such as the common cold, can be treated with decongestants and antihistamines to relieve cough and congestion, others may require additional interventions, such as antibiotics or antiviral treatment. In addition, it may take as many as 1-4 weeks to treat a severe lower respiratory tract infection like pneumonia successfully.
As for prevention, the best defense is continually optimizing your health and immune system via lifestyle interventions such as diet, exercise, hydration, sleep, and avoiding poor habits such as smoking or substance abuse.
Other simple lifestyle habits that you can and should implement to prevent such infections and bacterial spread include:
- Wash hands
- Wear masks in high-risk environments
- Avoid face touching
- Regularly clean vulnerable surfaces
Finally, the next best and most effective defense is vaccination. This practice has been a standard for healthcare workers for many years due to the high infection rates in the health environment.
Respiratory tract infections are widespread, especially as the seasons begin to change. In addition, most respiratory tract infections are viral in nature and tend to resolve on their own in a few days. In more severe cases, respiratory tract infections can be treated within a few weeks.
Maintaining good nutrition and adequate hydration are healthy practices to prevent these infections. Also, appropriate preventative measures such as regular hand washing will keep many people infection-free during the worst seasons for infection.