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Common Respiratory Infections: What You Need to Know

As the weather turns cooler, we enter the time of year when respiratory infections become more common.  Here’s what you need to know about common illnesses that affect our respiratory systems, how to reduce your chances of getting sick and what to do if you come down with something. 


Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) has been in the news a lot lately – but it’s not a new illness.  In fact, we all probably had it when we were kids; most children get RSV by the age of two. 

Normally, RSV is not a big deal.  It produces cold-like symptoms, such as runny nose, coughing, sneezing and fever.  It may also cause wheezing and loss of appetite.  Most RSV infections go away within a week or two. 

For some children, however, RSV can be dangerous.  Up to 80,000 children are hospitalized each year in the United States for RSV.  Premature infants, infants under 6 months of age, children younger than 2 years of age who have chronic lung disease or congenital heart disease and children with compromised immune systems are more at risk for severe illness from RSV.

While RSV usually only causes mild symptoms, it can lead to more serious illness, including bronchiolitis – the inflammation of the lungs’ small airways – and pneumonia. 

RSV can also be dangerous for some adults, especially those who are 65 or older.  Additionally, adults with chronic lung or heart disease or weakened immune systems may be at risk for complications from RSV, such as pneumonia.   

RSV is spread the same way as other respiratory illnesses: when someone coughs or sneezes, their respiratory droplets carry the virus to others.  If you touch a surface, like a doorknob, that has the virus on it and then touch your face, you can get it that way. 

There is no specific treatment for RSV.  Fever-reducers, such as acetaminophen and ibuprofen can help; however, children should never be given aspirin.  Beyond that, make sure your child gets plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration.  Should symptoms worsen to the point at which a child has difficulty breathing or turns blue, call 911 immediately. 

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 tired

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. 

There are some over-the-counter medications you can take to alleviate cold symptoms.  Pain relievers, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen, may be taken for headaches or body aches.  Nasal decongestants may help, also.  Gargling with warm salt water can help ease throat irritation.

Ultimately, 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 is correct: warm fluids can help loosen congestion and make you feel better.

As the weather turns cooler, we enter the time of year when respiratory infections become more common.  Here’s what you need to know about common illnesses that affect our respiratory systems, how to reduce your chances of getting sick and what to do if you come down with something. 

Is it a cold, the flu or COVID?

When you first get a cold, many of the symptoms – fatigue, congestion and body aches – are similar to those of the flu.  COVID-19 may also cause these symptoms. 

To rule out COVID, take a rapid test – these are available at your local pharmacy. 

The best way to know the difference between cold and flu is to take your temperature (COVID may or may not cause fever).  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 – the 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.  Just like a 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.  Getting plenty of rest is the most important thing you can do to speed recovery, as well as drinking plenty of fluids – this helps keep you hydrated and helps to thin out the mucus that’s causing 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.  Just like sinusitis, most bronchitis is viral and not bacterial.  Therefore, antibiotics won’t do you any good.

You should definitely see a doctor for bronchitis if you:

  • Also develop a fever of 100.4 F or higher
  • Are coughing up blood or wheezing
  • If the bronchitis persists for more than a week 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

The common cold is often the cause of both sinus infections and bronchitis.  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 best way to wash your hands:

  1. “Wet your hands with clean, running water (warm or cold), turn off the tap, and apply soap.
  2. Lather your hands by rubbing them together with the soap. Lather the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails.
  3. Scrub 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 clean, 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 handwashing.  Use soap and water whenever possible.  When it’s not, hand sanitizer containing at least 60% alcohol is a good backup.

Getting adequate rest is an important defense against upper-respiratory infections: our bodies are most susceptible to illness when they are tired and run down.  Getting plenty of sleep each night is a great defense against the common cold and other illnesses.

If you do end up with a cold or other respiratory illness this winter, do your best to not spread your misfortune to others.  Stay home for a couple of days, especially if you are running a fever – your co-workers will appreciate you for it!  And of course, always cover your mouth when you sneeze or cough –in addition to being polite, you will help to prevent the spread of germs.

This article has been reviewed and approved by a panel of Privia Medical Group North Texas physicians. 

This article contains information sourced from:

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

The Mayo Clinic

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