Discusses respiratory problems that older children and adults can have. Covers viral and bacterial infections, allergies, and asthma. Offers home treatment tips. Includes interactive tool to help you decide when to call a doctor.
Respiratory Problems, Age 12 and Older
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
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.
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.
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.
Mental changes, such as feeling confused or much less
Extreme fatigue (to the point where it's hard for you to
Symptoms of a heart attack may
Chest pain or pressure, or a strange feeling in the chest.
Nausea or vomiting.
Pain, pressure, or a
strange feeling in the back, neck, jaw, or upper belly, or in one or both
shoulders or arms.
Lightheadedness or sudden
A fast or irregular heartbeat.
The more of these symptoms you have, the more likely it is that
you're having a heart attack. Chest pain or pressure is the most common
symptom, but some people, especially women, may not notice it as much as other
symptoms. You may not have chest pain at all but instead have shortness of breath, nausea, numbness,
tingling, or a strange feeling in your chest or other areas.
Symptoms of a severe allergic reaction
(anaphylaxis) may include:
The sudden appearance of raised, red areas (hives)
all over the body.
Rapid swelling of the throat, mouth, or tongue.
Passing out (losing consciousness). Or you may feel very lightheaded or suddenly feel weak, confused,
A severe reaction can be life-threatening. If you have had a
bad allergic reaction to a substance before and are exposed to it again, treat
any symptoms as an emergency. Even if the symptoms are mild at first, they may
quickly become very severe.
Seek Care Today
Based on your answers, you may need care soon. The
problem probably will not get better without medical care.
Call your doctor today to discuss the symptoms
and arrange for care.
If you cannot reach your doctor or you don't
have one, seek care today.
If it is evening, watch the symptoms and
seek care in the morning.
Based on your answers, you may need care right away. The problem is likely to get worse without medical care.
Call your doctor now to discuss the symptoms and
arrange for care.
If you cannot reach your doctor or you don't have
one, seek care in the next hour.
You do not need to call an
You cannot travel safely either by driving
yourself or by having someone else drive you.
You are in an area
where heavy traffic or other problems may slow you down.
Many things can affect how your body responds to a symptom and what kind
of care you may need. These include:
Your age. Babies and older
adults tend to get sicker quicker.
Your overall health. If you have a condition such as diabetes, HIV, cancer, or heart
disease, you may need to pay closer attention to certain symptoms and seek care
Medicines you take. Certain
medicines, herbal remedies, and supplements can cause symptoms or make them
Recent health events, such as surgery
or injury. These kinds of events can cause symptoms afterwards or make them
Your health habits and lifestyle, such as eating and exercise habits, smoking, alcohol or drug
use, sexual history, and travel.
Pain in adults and older children
Severe pain (8 to 10): The pain
is so bad that you can't stand it for more than a few hours, can't sleep, and
can't do anything else except focus on the pain.
Moderate pain (5 to 7): The pain is bad enough to disrupt your
normal activities and your sleep, but you can tolerate it for hours or days.
Moderate can also mean pain that comes and goes even if it's severe when it's
Mild pain (1 to 4): You notice the pain,
but it is not bad enough to disrupt your sleep or activities.
If you're not sure if a fever is high, moderate, or mild,
think about these issues:
With a high fever:
You feel very hot.
It is likely one of
the highest fevers you've ever had. High fevers are not that common, especially
With a moderate fever:
You feel warm or hot.
You know you have
With a mild fever:
You may feel a little warm.
you might have a fever, but you're not sure.
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.
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.
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 decide to try a complementary or alternative medicine 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:
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.
You can help your
doctor diagnose and treat your condition by being prepared to answer the
When did your symptoms start?
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?
How this information was developed to help you make better health decisions.