Upper respiratory infections can happen at any time and can cause complications for those with conditions like asthma or Cystic Fibrosis. Knowing how to identify and treat common respiratory illnesses can help you determine whether your symptoms are related to a virus or your lung condition.
Common Respiratory Illnesses
Your respiratory system is a network of organs and tissue which helps you breathe. It includes airways such as your nose and throat, as well as your lungs and even blood vessels. When these areas become infected they cause upper respiratory infections. Although these common respiratory illnesses annoy, they rarely become serious. Some of these illnesses seem to have common symptoms, but by educating yourself, you can know how they are different, and what you can do to combat them.
1. The Flu
Influenza (more commonly known as the flu) is a contagious illness that attacks the respiratory system. The flu begins when you become infected with a strain of the flu virus. Viral infections spread when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or even talks. You can even contract the flu by touching something after it is touched by someone with the flu.
The flu usually comes on a person quickly and begins with common cold symptoms such as a sore throat and a runny nose. Other common flu symptoms include:
- Muscle/body aches
Although many develop a fever when they have the flu, it is possible to have the flu without developing a fever.
If you are suffering from the flu, there are a few things you can do to get yourself on the fast track to recovery. You can begin by treating yourself at home with lots of rest and drinking lots of fluids. Rest helps your body gain strength and fluids help rid your body of mucus that builds in your lungs. You could also visit with your healthcare provider and they may prescribe antiviral medications. This helps you to recover more quickly. For the average person, the flu is a mild sickness. However, it can cause worsening symptoms for people with asthma and other respiratory conditions. Elderly, young children and people with weakened immune systems are considered at a higher risk for flu complications. If you are at high risk, you should talk to your healthcare provider about what medications will help you recover the best.
The best treatment is prevention. Getting your yearly flu shot will help you have the best chances of not contracting the flu during the flu season.
2. The Common Cold
Similar to the flu, a cold begins with a stuffy/runny nose and a sore throat. The difference is that a cold takes longer to initially develop while the flu seems to hit you suddenly. Colds are caused by viruses that infect you when you touch your eyes, nose, or mouth after touching something that has the virus on it.
Common cold symptoms include:
- Stuffy/runny nose
- Sore throat
- Generally feeling weak and achy
Treating your cold involves self-care since there is no quick fix. Getting rest and drinking lots of fluids helps your body recover. While many over-the-counter medicines help with symptoms, they cannot shorten the duration of your cold. Be careful if you are considering antibiotics for a cold. Antibiotics cannot help viral infections. If they are taken in the wrong context, they can cause your body to have difficulty fighting off bacterial infections like pneumonia.
3. Sinus Infection
Your sinuses are air spaces located in your forehead, cheeks, and behind your nose. These air spaces produce mucus that helps protect the inside of your nose. When these spaces become inflamed it turns into what we call a sinus infection or sinusitis. These infections are caused by either bacteria, fungus (mold), or a virus.
Common sinus infection symptoms include:
- Stuffy/runny nose
- Post-nasal drip
- Pressure/discomfort in the facial area
- Teeth pain
- Headaches located in the front of your head
Although these symptoms sound similar to a cold, a sinus infection lasts much longer. A normal sinus infection may last anywhere from one to several weeks. According to the Mayo Clinic, if your sinus infection lasts longer than twelve weeks it is considered chronic. In this case, you should seek out medical help to help resolve your issue.
For cases that last longer than a week or two, a doctor may prescribe antibiotics if your infection is caused by bacteria. Your doctor may also recommend nasal sprays that help relieve some of your discomforts. Taking a hot, steamy shower helps to loosen the mucus in your sinuses thus relieving some of the pressure. Warm compresses also work to alleviate the pain.
Bronchitis (also called a chest cold) occurs when your bronchial tubes located in the lungs become inflamed. It often occurs after you have suffered from the common cold since they are caused by the same virus.
Common bronchitis symptoms include:
- Excess of mucus
- Shortness of breath
- Body aches/achy chest
- Mild headache
- Sore throat
Since bronchitis is viral, antibiotics will once again not be helpful in recovery. The CDC recommends getting lots of rest and drinking fluids. Cough medicine helps you cough less so you get better rest. You might want to try drinking a warm beverage with honey to soothe your throat.
How You Can Prevent Common Respiratory Illnesses
Getting sick puts a damper on your everyday life, but there are several things you can do to prevent yourself from getting sick.
1. Wash Your Hands
A quick wash in the sink may not do much to get the germs off of your hands. Make sure the water is hot and always use soap. Then be sure you wash for at least thirty seconds. When you cannot get to a sink consider using hand sanitizer.
2. Avoid Touching Your Face
Oftentimes you become sick after touching an infected surface and then touching your face. Try to make it a habit to not touch your face. This may prevent you from getting many different types of illnesses.
3. Avoid Close Contact
When you are out and about avoid getting close to others who may be sick. In turn, if you are sick make sure to stay home so you don’t spread your sickness to others.
4. A Healthy Lifestyle
By taking care of your body you lower your chances of getting sick. A healthy lifestyle includes eating a healthy diet, drinking lots of water, getting exercise, and stress management.
If you are experiencing symptoms and need help determining what’s wrong, consult your physician.