Respiratory tract infections (RTIs) are infectious diseases affecting the body parts involved in respiratory functions, such as lungs, airways, throat, and sinuses. They are classified into upper respiratory tract infection and lower respiratory tract infection. These infections are differentiated based upon the area of the respiratory tract they affect. Upper respiratory tract infections (URTIs/ URIs) affect the parts in the larynx or above whereas lower respiratory tract infections (LRTIs/ LRIs) occur in the airways below the larynx.
Causes, Risk Factors, And Diagnosis Of Respiratory Tract Infection
Respiratory infections may be caused by viruses, bacteria, fungi, or mycoplasma (small organisms with characteristics of both viruses and bacteria). Certain environmental substances such as dust, allergens, fumes, vapors, chemicals, smoke, etc. may also act as irritants and cause inflammation in the airways and lungs leading to respiratory infections.
RTIs are often transmitted through the coughs and sneezes of a person with an infection. Someone who has recently had the flu, surgery, or people with a weakened immune system, autoimmune disorder, damaged airways, senior citizens above 65 years of age, and children less than 5 years old are more likely to develop these infections.
Typically, respiratory infections are easily diagnosed by a doctor during the preliminary examination of patients which includes listening to their chest and breathing through a stethoscope and discussion of the type of symptoms and how long they have presented. If required he/she may also order additional tests like pulse oximetry to check the blood oxygen level, blood tests and/ or mucus samples to check for bacteria and viruses, and sometimes chest X-rays to rule out pneumonia.
Most Respiratory tract infections resolve on their own without treatment. If the symptoms are mild, they can very well be treated at home. However, it is important to seek professional medical care in case the symptoms are seen to worsen or there is consistent difficulty in breathing. Also, pregnant women, patients over 65, and patients with long-term health conditions should receive medical guidance.
Getting diagnosed may be crucial, as the initial symptoms can resemble other illnesses, such as allergic reactions or seasonal allergies, bronchitis, influenza, pneumonia, asthma, COVID-19.
Some OTC pain relief medicines such as acetaminophen, ibuprofen, anesthetic sprays, and lozenges may help adults with the discomfort of URTIs. Decongestants such as phenylephrine, pseudoephedrine, and oxymetazoline are also commonly used to treat the symptoms of these infections. Nasal decongestants and nasal sprays are most commonly used for URTIs.
Pharmacists may suggest antihistamines which together with nasal decongestants are found to be an effective treatment against URTIs. These are, Diphenhydramine, brompheniramine and chlorpheniramine. There are a number of over-the-counter medications available in medical stores which do well to treat mild cough or fever at home.
Sometimes, a doctor may prescribe additional treatment such as antibiotics for treating bacterial infections, or an inhaler to support breathing. A person may need to visit the hospital to receive breathing support or IV fluids as well. Very young children and infants may need more treatment which can also involve hospitalization.
Home remedies generally include making a patient more comfortable by relieving their symptoms. Few of the commonly used and suggested remedies are
- Taking honey
- Drinking Green tea
- Drinking a hot tea with ginger and lemon
- Drinking a hot lemon and honey drink to help soothe a cough
- Steam inhalation (avoid scalding hot)
- Salty, warm water gargling for sore throat
- Usage of essential oils, like eucalyptus and peppermint
- Drinking plenty fluids and staying hydrated. Drinking lots of water will loosen any mucus and make it easier to cough out.
- Increasing indoor humidity levels and avoiding significant temperature change
- Using OTC medicines to bring down a fever, headaches, and muscle pain
- Plenty of rest
Following precautions can be taken to prevent a respiratory infection from acquiring or spreading to some degree:
- Wear a mask
- Always Cover nose and mouth when sneezing and coughing
- Dispose used tissues immediately.
- Staying away from people with respiratory issues
- Avoid sharing drinking glass or utensils
- Wash hands frequently, avoiding touching the face with unwashed hands
- Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and spaces regularly
- Avoid crowded, poorly ventilated areas
- Avoid known irritants, such as chemicals, fumes, tobacco, dust
- Have healthy diet
- Exercise regularly
RTI’s are the most commonly occurring infections, and between Upper RTIs and Lower RTIs, the latter tend to last longer and can be more serious. RTIs are typically transferable through sneezes, coughs, touch, and can be caused by viruses, bacteria, fungi, mycoplasma, and other irritants. Certain preventive measures can be taken to reduce the chances of getting RTIs by everyone.
The recovery period varies from person to person however in most cases viral infections usually clear up within a couple of weeks without any need for treatment, whereas for bacterial infections, a doctor may prescribe a course of antibiotics. Typically, RTI symptoms are easily treatable at home with home care techniques and OTC medications but in some cases may require medical intervention for proper diagnosis and treatment.
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