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 .
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.
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