Respiratory infections come in many forms. They can affect your throat, sinuses, lungs, or airways. They're common for people of all ages and aren’t usually serious. But if you get them often, it could be a sign you have another health issue.
The flu can be either an upper or lower respiratory infection.
Causes of Respiratory Infections
You may get repeated infections because of things in your environment and lifestyle like:
- Contact with other infected people (especially those who are coughing or sneezing)
- Pollen and other irritants
- Smoking and secondhand smoke
- Cold weather
- Lack of sleep
But sometimes, frequent respiratory infections arise from more serious problems. They include:
Lung disease. People with asthma, cystic fibrosis (CF), or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) are more likely to get respiratory infections. These infections can make the symptoms of these chronic conditions worse.
Asthma is one of the most common lung diseases. It affects about 260 million people all over the world. COPD is widespread as well, causing more than 3 million deaths each year. CF is less frequent and affects about 70,000 people globally.
Structural issues. The structure of your body can make you more prone to respiratory infections. A deviated septum (in which one of your nasal passages is smaller), nasal polyps (growths in your nasal passages), and other blockages in your airways can lead to sinus infections.
If you have lung cancer, a tumor can also cause a blockage that results in repeated respiratory infections.
Secondary immune deficiency. This happens when your immune system is damaged by something that affects your body, like chemotherapy medications, bad burns, malnutrition, or HIV. A weakened immune system makes you more likely to get respiratory infections.
Primary immunodeficiency. This is when you have genetic (inherited) defects that weaken your immune system. They include T-cell and B-cell deficiencies. They’re much less common than secondary immune deficiencies. People with primary immunodeficiency often get pneumonia, bronchitis, and sinus infections.
When to See a Doctor
If you frequently get infections and can’t pinpoint the cause, check in with your doctor.
Schedule an appointment with your doctor if:
- Your symptoms get worse or last longer than 3 weeks.
- You cough up blood.
- You’re pregnant.
- You’re over 65.
- You have another condition like diabetes, cancer, or a heart, lung, or kidney condition.
Guidelines for when to get medical help are different for children depending on their age.