A respiratory tract infection characterizes a disease of the respiratory organs. Either the upper or lower airways are affected by the frequently occurring infection. In the vernacular, an acute respiratory infection is often referred to as a cold.
What is a respiratory infection?
A variety of pathogens cause acute respiratory infections. The affected respiratory tract is divided into upper and lower respiratory tract. The upper respiratory organs are located outside of the chest cavity. These include the nose, throat and sinuses. The larynx represents the border between the two areas.
The lower airways include the trachea and bronchi. An upper respiratory tract infection is far more common. The course of the disease is generally uncomplicated and easy to treat. A lower respiratory tract infection is usually a long-term disease process with serious symptoms.
In the course of the disease, the pathogens can spread. As a result, various comorbidities arise. For example, infections of the upper respiratory tract develop a bacterial otitis media. Furthermore, an infection of the upper respiratory tract can turn into a lower respiratory disease. A chronic form is characterized by recurring or particularly protracted symptoms. This type of respiratory infection includes, for example, chronic obstructive bronchitis.
There are many causes of a respiratory infection. Normally the mucous membranes of the respiratory organs and the body’s own defense system protect the organism from numerous pathogens. However, if the natural barrier is disrupted or the immune system is weakened, a respiratory infection can develop.
Mainly different viruses are considered to be the cause of the disease. Nevertheless, bacteria, and rarely fungi, can cause respiratory infections. For example, bacteria cause otitis media or sinus infections. The transmission occurs through droplet infection.
While coughing, sneezing or speaking, the pathogens get into the air. However, a respiratory tract infection can also result from smear or contact infection. The incubation time of a respiratory tract infection is a few hours to a few days.
Symptoms, ailments & signs
As soon as the respiratory tract infection begins, the patient realizes that breathing is difficult and sometimes painful. Too little oxygen reaches the blood via the respiratory tract, the body is undersupplied and a sharp drop in performance becomes noticeable. Fatigue and exhaustion are the result.
Normal activities and movements require great effort and are often no longer possible. As a result, many patients find it difficult to get out of bed and carry out normal activities. The low oxygen supply also weakens the cardiovascular system.
The heart rate rises as the heart has to beat more often to keep the body supplied with oxygen. Because of this additional effort, there is a high energy consumption. Profuse sweating and increased temperature are not only caused by the mostly bacterial infection of the body, but also by the additional exertion.
As the infection progresses, secretions are usually released that have to be expelled from the airways by coughing. The exertion of coughing weakens the patient further, since it is associated with exertion of force. Depending on the type of infection, the symptoms can also spread to the upper respiratory tract in the nose and throat, for example in the case of a flu or a cold. The mucous membranes in the throat and nose swell and there is increased secretion.
Diagnosis & course
The diagnosis of respiratory tract infection is made by the doctor on the basis of the present duration and severity of the symptoms, after a detailed examination and questioning of the patient. The examination includes looking at, tapping, listening and palpating different areas of the body.
The causative agent of a respiratory infection is detected by a blood sample. In the case of a bacterial respiratory tract infection, an increased concentration of leukocytes (white blood cells) is visible in the blood count. A throat swab can also indicate bacterial involvement.
If necessary, the doctor will also take a chest x-ray. If the respiratory tract infection persists and there are any abnormalities, bronchoscopy (lung specimen) or computed tomography (CT) can also be performed.
As the respiratory tract infection progresses, complications can arise. This can lead to inflammation of the lungs, meninges or heart muscle. As a rule, these diseases develop through what is known as a second infection, also known as a superinfection. The immune system is already weakened by the infectious disease, bacteria overlay the viruses.
In many cases, upper respiratory tract infections are without complications. Since they are mostly caused by viruses, the use of antibiotics is not necessary unless there is evidence of a bacterial cause. As a preventive measure, many doctors still prescribe antibiotics, which is particularly problematic because of the build-up of resistance. Serious complications can only occur with more complicated courses of sinus, throat or tonsillitis.
In the event of inadequate therapy, these diseases can develop into a chronic form that recurs several times, or the pathogens spread to neighboring tissue, causing secondary diseases. With a sinus infection sinus and maxillary sinus may be affected, at a middle ear infection of the bone behind the ear (mastoiditis) and at a tonsillitis kidneys, heart and joints. It is also possible that bacteria attack the weakened immune system as a result of the infection, creating a superinfection.
In contrast, infections of the lower respiratory tract are generally more severe. Pneumonia, which can also develop from a complication of laryngitis, should be emphasized here. Oxygen deficiency when breathing is obstructed, blood poisoning when the pathogen spreads, fluid accumulation between the lungs and chest (pleural effusion), and bleeding and scarring that impair expansion and thus breathing can occur within the lungs. Furthermore, various inflammations of other organs are possible.
When should you go to the doctor?
If you suspect a respiratory tract infection, you should definitely speak to a doctor. Medical advice is recommended at the first signs of infection, such as breathing difficulties, a scratchy throat or a feeling of pressure in the ear. The typical cold symptoms such as a runny nose and frequent sneezing should definitely be clarified in order to prevent the underlying disease from worsening. A doctor’s visit is particularly urgent if the lower respiratory tract is affected.
Hoarseness, sputum, chest pain and the like point to acute bronchitis or even pneumonia or larynx, which must be treated immediately. As a rule of thumb: if the symptoms have not subsided after a few days, it is best to consult a doctor.
If you have an underlying heart or lung disease or diabetes, you should see a doctor the next day. With children and elderly patients, a quick visit to the doctor is also recommended if a respiratory infection is suspected. Particularly in infants and young children, complaints must be investigated quickly because the airways are still developing.
Treatment & Therapy
The therapy of an acute respiratory tract infection depends on the pathogen and general condition of the patient. Often times, patients recover without drug treatment. Therapy only consists of relieving the symptoms. For example, steam or inhalation baths, various changing mats, sufficient fluid intake and physical restraint are suitable for this.
In more severe forms, bed rest is indicated. Furthermore, pharmacy-only drugs can successfully alleviate the side effects of a respiratory infection. These include nasal sprays or nasal drops, for example, in the case of obstructed nasal breathing. For complaints in the throat and throat area, gargle solutions or pain and anti-inflammatory sucking preparations are suitable.
On the other hand, if the patient suffers from a respiratory tract infection from a fever, headache and body aches, drugs containing paracetamol or acetylsalicylic acid can quickly improve physical wellbeing.
In the event of bacterial involvement in a respiratory tract infection, the treating doctor always prescribes an antibiotic. A chronic form requires long-term therapy. In the case of an incurable obstructive (breathing obstructing) respiratory tract infection, long-term drug therapy can alleviate the symptoms.
Outlook & forecast
The prognosis for respiratory infections is, at least in acute cases, to be regarded as good. Most infections are mild conditions that often go away on their own, provided the person concerned has a healthy immune system and the respiratory tract is not damaged. Most adults experience such minor infections up to four times a year.
In rare cases, medication is also required for acute respiratory infections, especially for pneumonia. Severe fever, accompanying ailments or very poor environmental conditions can also make the healing process more difficult. The same applies if the sick person is a smoker or is exposed to harmful substances at work.
With chronic respiratory infections, the prognosis is worse. There are progressive ailments here and those that can be stabilized well with treatment. There can also be phases of improvement, after which the infection becomes more symptomatic again.
Early detection and good treatment are crucial here. There are some chronic ailments that can be controlled well with continued treatment, but still represent a limitation for those affected. Lifelong ailments, which are often caused by a combination of a respiratory infection and previous damage to the respiratory tract, occur.
The exact prognosis for chronic respiratory infections must be clarified by a doctor. In general, however, the person affected has a considerable influence on the course of therapy through their lifestyle.
A respiratory infection cannot always be reliably prevented. It is primarily advisable to sufficiently strengthen the immune system. A healthy diet rich in vitamins, adequate exercise in the fresh air and as far as possible avoiding alcohol and nicotine are suitable preventive measures.
As a result, the body is often able to fight off a respiratory infection on its own. Particularly susceptible, immunocompromised people should stay away from crowds as much as possible in order to prevent a respiratory infection.
A respiratory infection can be very dangerous. Good treatment is first of all very important in order to avoid long-term effects. Follow-up care for such an infection is all the more important. A respiratory tract infection can be caused by pathogens or bacteria. The therapy of an acute respiratory tract infection therefore depends very much on the pathogen and the general condition of the patient.
Often times, patients recover without drug treatment. However, regular follow-up visits are very important to ensure complete healing. If the sick person refrains from further follow-up examinations, the infection of the respiratory tract can germinate repeatedly.
If the symptoms worsen again, an appropriate doctor should be consulted immediately. An existing respiratory infection can be prevented with anti-inflammatory drugs. Appropriate aftercare can also prevent the infection from spreading throughout the body.
Under certain circumstances, there is a risk of a considerable worsening, so that a visit to the doctor should not be put off on the back burner. Follow-up examinations are very important and meaningful even with a supposedly harmless infection of the respiratory tract. In addition, follow-up care promotes complete and prompt recovery.
You can do that yourself
In addition to the direct treatment of upper and lower respiratory tract infections with medication, those affected can support their bodies in many ways in fighting the infection.
Mucus formation, and thus coughing up and cleaning the airways, can be stimulated by drinking enough fluids and inhaling steam. Also, eucalyptus oil and other sharper medicinal plants can help as an additive in water vapor or applied directly. The measures also help with respiratory infections that lead to a dry cough, because they calm the mucous membranes and can relieve the feeling of scratchy in the throat.
A healthy diet and the temporary avoidance of nicotine and alcohol also support the immune system and the supply of mucous membrane cells. Regular walks in the fresh air also help, because the airways are cleared. Exposure to the respiratory tract from dust, smoke and other pollutants should be reduced as much as possible. Sufficient sleep and physical rest also help those affected.
Mouth and throat rinses with lukewarm sage tea or salt water soothe the airways and fight bacteria. Both liquids should not be swallowed.
In the case of over-the-counter products that alleviate the symptoms (cough syrup, numbing throat drops, etc.), care should be taken to ensure that coughing and degumming are impaired.
These remedies are safe for acute, non-serious infections. In the case of chronic respiratory infections, treatment of the cause by a doctor should be a priority.