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Health News
November 30, 2017
Common Respiratory Illnesses

With winter approaching, it is once again the time of year when we are more likely to be sick with a respiratory illness.  While these illnesses can affect people at any time, they tend to be more prevalent in the winter months.  Here’s a look at some of the most common respiratory ailments that can impact adults and children. 

The Common Cold

It’s called the “common cold” because it’s one of the most frequent illnesses we experience in our lives.  On average, adults get colds two or three times a year, while children get them even more frequently.  Symptoms of a cold include:

  • Sore throat

  • Runny nose

  • Nasal congestion

  • Coughing

  • Sneezing

  • Watery eyes

  • Headaches

  • Body aches

  • Low-grade fever

  • Feeling run down

A cold is caused by a viral infection in the upper respiratory tract and generally lasts for a week to ten days.  There is no cure for the common cold, so the best thing to do is take it easy and allow the cold to follow its natural course.  Antibiotics treat bacterial infections, not viral ones, so they are of no help to someone with a cold. 

“If you find yourself with a cold, you can take over-the-counter pain relievers for headaches or body aches, as well as a nasal decongestant, if needed,” advises Dr. Mark Bernhard, a primary care physician.  Gargling with warm salt water can help ease throat irritation. But the best medicine for the common cold is to get plenty of rest and drink lots of fluids.  And what your mother told you about eating chicken soup for a cold is correct: warm fluids can help loosen congestion and make you feel better.”  

Is it a cold or the flu?

When you first get a cold, many of the symptoms – fatigue, congestion and body aches – are similar to those of the flu.  

The best way to know the difference between the two is to take your temperature.  A low-grade fever sometimes accompanies a cold.  But if you have a fever of 100°F or higher, you may well have the flu.  In that case, see a doctor right away.  

Sinus Infection

A sinus infection, or acute sinusitis, occurs when the sinuses – cavities near the nasal passages – become irritated and swollen.  Sinusitis prevents mucus from draining properly and causes it to build up in the sinus cavities, causing nasal congestion.  You may also experience a thick yellow or green discharge from the nose or down the back of the throat, known as post-nasal drip. 

A sinus infection can also cause pain or pressure in the forehead, cheekbones and upper jaw, as well as fever and a reduced ability to smell or taste. 

Acute sinusitis is most frequently caused by the common cold and is therefore a viral infection and immune from antibiotics.  Just like the cold, a sinus infection will usually resolve itself in a week or so.  If you have a sinus infection that persists for more than a week, a bacterial infection may be present and you should see a doctor. 

In addition to the common cold, allergies, hay fever and exposure to cigarette smoke are all risk factors for acute sinusitis.  

A sinus infection that lasts for 12 weeks or longer, despite medical treatment, is considered chronic sinusitis.  An otolaryngologist – an ear, nose and throat specialist – can help treat chronic sinusitis, which could be caused by conditions such as nasal polyps or a deviated septum

“The same treatments for a cold apply to a sinus infection,” says Dr. John Briscoe, a primary care physician.  “Getting plenty of rest is the most important thing you can do to speed recovery, as well as drink plenty of fluids – this helps keep you hydrated and also helps to thin out the mucus that’s causing the congestion.”


Bronchitis, or a chest cold, occurs when the lining of the bronchial tubes that carry air to and from the lungs become inflamed.   This can result in a tight or painful feeling in the chest, as well as coughing up mucus that can be clear, yellow, white or green.   Other symptoms can include fatigue and shortness of breath.  

Just like acute sinusitis, acute bronchitis is frequently caused by the common cold.  And just as with those conditions, it will usually resolve itself in about a week, although a cough may linger for some time.  And, you guessed it – since most bronchitis is viral and not bacterial, antibiotics won’t do you any good.

You should definitely see a doctor for bronchitis if you:

  • Also develop a fever of 100.4 or higher,

  • Are coughing up blood or wheezing or

  • If the bronchitis persists for more than a week or so without improvement. 

In these cases, your doctor may order a chest x-ray and check the oxygen level in your body to check for pneumonia

Bronchitis that does not go away over time, despite medical treatment, is chronic bronchitis.  This is a condition often associated with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), which smokers are at high risk of developing.  COPD generally involves both chronic bronchitis and emphysema. 

Your Best Defenses

By now, you know that the common cold is often the cause of both sinus infections and bronchitis.  You also know that all colds and most cases of sinusitis and bronchitis are viral; therefore, antibiotics won’t help and you just have to get plenty of rest and wait for your body to get over the illness.  However, there are things you can do to lessen your chances of getting sick in the first place.

One of the most important things we can do is wash our hands frequently.   Unfortunately, many of us don’t wash our hands often enough or do it correctly.  

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the following is the correct way to wash your hands:

  1. “Wet your hands with clean, running water (warm or cold) and apply soap.
  2. Rub your hands together to make a lather and scrub them well; be sure to scrub the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails.
  3. Continue rubbing your hands for at least 20 seconds. Need a timer? Hum the ‘Happy Birthday’ song from beginning to end twice.
  4. Rinse your hands well under running water.
  5. Dry your hands using a clean towel or air dry them.”

It’s also a good idea to carry some hand sanitizer with you, as long as you don’t use it as a substitute for hand-washing.  Use soap and water whenever possible, but when that’s not feasible, hand sanitizer containing at least 60 percent alcohol is a good backup.

Getting adequate rest is also important.  “Our bodies are most susceptible to illness when we are tired and run down,” explains primary care physician, Dr. Michelle Torres.  “Getting plenty of sleep each night is a great defense against the cold and other illnesses.”

And finally, if you end up with a cold or other respiratory illness, do your best to not spread the misery to others.  “Stay home for a couple of days, especially if you are running a fever.  Your co-workers will thank you later,” advises Dr. Mark Hammonds, a primary care physician.  “And always cover your mouth when you sneeze or cough, which will help to prevent the spread of germs.”    

This article contains information sourced from:

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

The Mayo Clinic