Most adults and older
children have several respiratory infections each year. Respiratory problems
can be as minor as the common cold or as serious as
pneumonia. They may affect the upper respiratory system (nose, mouth, sinuses, and throat) or the lower bronchial tubes and
lungs. See a picture of the
respiratory system .
Upper respiratory system
The upper respiratory system
includes the nose, mouth, sinuses, and throat. When you have an upper
respiratory infection, you may feel uncomfortable, have a stuffy nose, and
sound very congested. Other symptoms of an upper respiratory infection
- Facial pain or pressure.
- A runny or
stuffy nose, which may lead to blockage of the nasal passages and cause you to
breathe through your mouth.
- A sore
- Irritability, restlessness, poor appetite, and decreased
- Coughing, especially when lying
- Fever that occurs suddenly and may reach
103°F (39°C) or higher.
Lower respiratory system
The lower respiratory system
includes the bronchial tubes and lungs. Respiratory problems are less common in
the lower respiratory system than upper respiratory system.
symptoms of a lower respiratory (bronchial tubes and lungs) problem usually are
more severe than symptoms of an upper respiratory (mouth, nose, sinuses, and
Symptoms of lower respiratory system infections
- Cough, which continues throughout the day and
night, often producing green, yellow, brown, or gray mucus (sputum) from the
- Fever, which may be high with some lower respiratory system
infections such as pneumonia.
- Difficulty breathing. You may notice:
- Shortness of breath.
which is heard during the breathing out (exhaling) phase of
- Flaring the nostrils and using
the neck, chest, and abdominal muscles to breathe, causing a "sucking in"
between or under the ribs (retractions).
- Chest pain with exertion or when you take a deep
Respiratory problems may have many causes.
Viral infections are the most common
cause of upper respiratory symptoms. Symptoms of a viral illness often come on
quickly (over hours to a day or two) without prior illness. Common viral
illnesses include colds and influenza (flu).
- Colds are minor upper respiratory illnesses
that usually go away without treatment. Symptoms may include cough, mild sore
throat, nasal congestion, runny nose or sneezing, and occasionally a fever.
- Influenza (flu) symptoms are usually more severe than
a cold. The key symptoms in adults are fever and
body aches. Headache, eye pain, muscle aches, and cough are also common. For
more information, see the topic
Influenza (Seasonal Flu).
Antibiotics are not used to treat viral illnesses and do
not alter the course of viral infections. Unnecessary use of an antibiotic
exposes you to the risks of an
allergic reaction and antibiotic side effects, such as
nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, rashes, and yeast infections. Antibiotics also may
kill beneficial bacteria and encourage the development of dangerous
Bacterial infections may develop
after a viral illness, such as a cold or influenza, and are less common than
viral illnesses. Bacterial infections may affect the upper or lower respiratory
system. Symptoms tend to localize to one area. In the upper respiratory system,
the most common sites of bacterial infections are the sinuses and throat. In
the lower respiratory system, the most common site is the lungs (pneumonia).
Bacterial infections are more
common in smokers, people exposed to secondhand smoke, and people with chronic
lung disease (such as
asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease [COPD]) and other chronic medical problems. Antibiotics
can effectively treat most bacterial infections.
hay fever, are another common respiratory problem. Symptoms include
sneezing, clear runny drainage from the nose and eyes, itchy eyes or nose, and
stuffy, congested ears and sinuses. The symptoms of allergies often last longer
than a typical viral respiratory infection. For more information, see the topic
Asthma is a
chronic disease of the respiratory system. It causes
inflammation and narrowing in the tubes that carry air
to the lungs (bronchial tubes). The inflammation leads to difficulty breathing,
wheezing, tightness in the chest, and cough.
Asthma often begins during childhood and may last throughout a person's
life. The cause of asthma is not clearly known. It is more common in people who
also have allergies. For more information, see the topic
Asthma in Children or
Asthma in Teens and Adults.
Check your symptoms to decide if and when
you should see a doctor.
Home treatment can help you feel
more comfortable when you have mild to moderate respiratory symptoms.
dehydration. Hot fluids, such as tea or soup, may help
relieve congestion in your nose and throat. If you have a productive cough,
fluids may help thin the
mucus in your lungs so your cough can clear it
- Get extra rest; let your symptoms be your guide. If you have a
cold, you may be able to stick to your usual routine and just get some extra
- Let yourself cough if you have a cough that brings up mucus
from the lungs. It can help prevent bacterial infections. People who have
emphysema need to cough to help clear mucus from their
- For a sore throat, gargle at least once each hour with warm
salt water [1 tsp (5 g) of salt in
8 fl oz (240 mL) of water] to
reduce swelling and discomfort. For more information, see the topic
Sore Throat and Other Throat Problems.
- Use a humidifier to add moisture to the air. Use only water in the humidifier.
- For a stuffy nose, use saline spray or nose drops to wash out mucus and germs.
Keep in mind the following guidelines for taking
nonprescription medicine for your symptoms:
- Nonprescription medicines may not work very well for respiratory problems. And some of these
medicines can cause problems if you use too much of them. It is important to
use medicines correctly and to keep them out of the reach of children to
prevent accidental use.
- Check with the doctor before giving decongestants, antihistamines, or other cold and allergy medicines to
- If you use a decongestant nasal spray, don't use it longer than the label says. Overuse may lead to a rebound effect, which causes the
mucous membranes to become more swollen than they were before you started using
- If you have a dry, hacking cough that does not bring up
any sputum, ask your doctor or pharmacist about an effective cough suppressant medicine. For
more information, see the topic
Coughs, Age 12 and Older.
- If you decide to try a dietary supplement such as echinacea or zinc, do not exceed the maximum recommended dose. If you have another health problem or take
prescription medicines, talk with your doctor before taking an alternative
medicine or supplement. For more information, see the
Colds or Complementary Medicine.
Medicine you can buy without a prescription
| Try a nonprescription
medicine to help treat your fever or pain:|
- Acetaminophen, such as
- Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs):
- Ibuprofen, such as Advil or
- Naproxen, such as Aleve or Naprosyn
- Aspirin (also a nonsteroidal
anti-inflammatory drug), such as Bayer or Bufferin
| Be sure to follow these
safety tips when you use a nonprescription medicine:|
- Carefully read and follow all directions
on the medicine bottle and box.
- Do not take more than the
- Do not take a medicine if you have had an
allergic reaction to it in the past.
you have been told to avoid a medicine, call your doctor before you take
- If you are or could be pregnant, do not take any medicine other
than acetaminophen unless your doctor has told you to.
- Do not give aspirin to anyone younger than age 20 unless your doctor tells you to.
Symptoms to watch for during home treatment
Call your doctor if any of the following occur during home
- Increasing difficulty breathing
- Wheezing develops.
- New chest pain develops.
- Symptoms last longer than 2 weeks.
- Symptoms become more severe or frequent.
There is no sure way to prevent
respiratory illnesses. To help reduce your risk:
- Wash your hands often, especially when
you are around people with colds.
- Keep your hands away from your
nose, eyes, and mouth. These are the places where viruses are most likely to
enter your body.
- Do not smoke or use other tobacco products.
Smoking irritates the mucous membranes of the nose, sinuses, and lungs, which
may make them more susceptible to infections. For more information, see the
- If you live in an area that
has problems with air pollution or smoke from wildfires:
- Stay indoors and avoid breathing in smoke,
ashes, or polluted air.
- Do not exercise outdoors if you smell smoke
or notice irritation of your eyes, nose, or throat.
- Keep your motor
vehicle windows rolled up and the vents closed when driving.
- Avoid cleanup activities, such as raking leaves or
- Avoid exposure to chemicals. Do not spray or apply
chemicals unless you are wearing protective clothing, such as a
particle-filtering respirator, safety goggles, and gloves.
regularly. For more information, see the topic
Fitness: Getting and Staying Active.
- Get a flu shot (influenza vaccine) each year. For more information, see the topic
Influenza (Seasonal Flu).
- Get a pneumococcal shot if you have chronic lung
disease, such as
chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD); if you
smoke; or if you have a
health risk that increases the seriousness of your
symptoms. If you are age 65 or older, it is recommended you get two different types of pneumococcal vaccines.
- Make sure your
immunizations are current, such as pertussis to reduce
your risk of getting
whooping cough. For more information, see the topic
- For information on
preventing allergies or asthma, see the topic
Allergic Rhinitis or
Asthma in Teens and Adults.
To prepare for your appointment, see the topic Making the Most of Your Appointment.
You can help your
doctor diagnose and treat your condition by being prepared to answer the
- When did your symptoms start?
- Is your
respiratory problem localized, such as involving only one ear, one side of your
sinuses, or the lungs?
- Did symptoms start as a cold but now appear
to be worse than you would expect from a cold?
- Have you had similar
symptoms before? How were they treated?
- Do you have a productive
cough? Are you coughing up clear, white, green, yellow, or blood-tinged mucus?
How much mucus are you bringing up? Are you coughing up mucus all day long or
mostly at nighttime?
- Have you had fever and chills?
you wheezing, or do you have new or worsening shortness of
- Do you have a severe headache, earache, or sore
- Do any other members of your family or work group have
- Have you recently been exposed to large amounts
of dust, fumes, smoke, or chemicals?
- Do you smoke or use other
- Have you recently used an indoor hot tub, pool,
- What home treatment have you tried? Did it help?
- What prescription, nonprescription, or alternative medicines have
you tried? Did they help?
- Have you recently traveled inside or
outside of your home country?
- Do you have any
- Coughs, Age 12 and Older
- Quick Tips: Giving Over-the-Counter Medicines to Children
- Sore Throat and Other Throat Problems