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What is a Respiratory Infection?

Respiratory infections (sometimes known as Respiratory tract infections or RTIs) is a catch-all phrase for infections occurring in the throat, sinuses airways or lungs (see our page on Chest infections) Most respiratory infection usually pass within a couple and symptoms are usually treatable at home. However if your symptoms (see below) are persistent, then you may need to seek medical attention.

Signs and symptoms of a Respiratory Infection

The main symptoms of a chest infection can include:

  • a persistent cough
  • coughing up yellow or green phlegm (thick mucus), or coughing up blood
  • breathlessness
  • tight chest or wheezing
  • sneezing or a stuffy or runny nose
  • a sore throat
  • headaches
  • muscle aches
  • a high temperature (fever)

You may also experience more general symptoms of an infection, such as a headache, fatigue, sweating, loss of appetite, or joint and muscle pain.

If you are feeling any of the symptoms, it is important to reduce the risk of passing them onto anyone else. Make sure that you cover your mouth when you feel you need to cough or sneeze. Wash your hands regularly and dispose of any tissues you use immediately.

What are the causes and types of a respiratory infection?

Causes of respiratory infections

The treatment your consultant picks will depend on the cause of your RTI. Usually, the cause of an RTI will falls into one of the following categories:

  • a virus, such as a cold – in this case, antibiotics will not be prescribed, and your symptoms should clear up in a couple of weeks.
  • bacteria, arising in something like pneumonia – in this case, your GP may prescribe antibiotics

Sometimes a sample of your mucus may need to be tested to see what’s causing your RTI.

Types of Respiratory infection:

There are several different types of RTI, which are commonly grouped into upper and lower RTIs – note the ‘flu’ can be either an upper or a lower RTI. Lower RTIs typically last longer than Upper RTIs and can have more severe symptoms and implications.

  • Upper RTIs are infections of the sinuses and throat such as: the common cold, sinusitis, tonsillitis or laryngitis.
  • Lower RTIs are infections of the airways and lungs such as: bronchitis, bronchiolitis, chest infection, pneumonia.


When should I seek medical attention?

Usually, an RTI can be managed at home. If you visit the pharmacist, they can suggest some treatments to help you such as decongestants and nasal sprays. You may also take paracetamol and ibuprofen, though if you are taking medicine alongside these, be careful not to take more than the recommended dose. Check with your pharmacist if you are pregnant, or looking after a small child or baby.

You should seek medical advice if:

  • you feel very unwell or your symptoms are severe
  • your symptoms are not improving
  • you feel confused, disorientated or drowsy
  • you have chest pain or difficulty breathing
  • you cough up blood or blood-stained phlegm
  • your skin or lips develop a blue tinge (cyanosis)
  • you’re pregnant
  • you’re 65 or over
  • you’re very overweight and have difficulty breathing
  • you think a child under five has a chest infection
  • you have a weakened immune system
  • you have a long-term health condition
  • you have a cough that has lasted more than 3 weeks

How is an respiratory infection treated?

Your consultant should be able to diagnose you based on your symptoms and by listening to your chest using a stethoscope. In some cases, further tests – such as a chest X-ray, breathing tests and testing phlegm or blood samples – may be necessary.