Infection of the upper respiratory tract
Updated: February 2020
A respiratory tract infection is inflammation of the respiratory tracts caused by viruses or bacteria. The term upper respiratory tract infection is used when the nose, sinuses or throat are affected.
Common upper respiratory tract infections include cold, flu, inflammation of the paranasal sinuses and pharyngitis.
Causes of upper respiratory tract infections
The mucous membranes lining the respiratory tracts normally prevent pathogens from entering the body. However, various factors may weaken this defence system. Viruses or bacteria then enter the respiratory tract, causing inflammation.
Symptoms of respiratory tract infections
Symptoms of the infection depend on where in the body the inflammation unfolds. With upper respiratory tract infections, the symptoms are milder than with lower respiratory tract infections.
Typical diseases of the upper respiratory tract are:
- Blocked/runny nose – runny nose, sneezing, headache
- Inflammation of the paranasal sinuses – blocked/runny nose, pressure pain, headache, fever, purulent discharge
- Pharyngitis – scratching in the throat, sore throat, possible fever, redness and swelling of the tonsils
- Tonsillitis – difficulty swallowing, purulent coating, swollen lymph
nodes, fever, headache
Diagnosis of respiratory tract infections
The typical symptoms provide information about the type of upper respiratory tract infection. A nasal swab may be taken and examined to determine the type of pathogen.
Treatment of upper respiratory tract infections
With viral infections of the upper respiratory tracts, symptom-relieving medications are administered, such as nasal sprays and steam inhalations. Since antibiotics are not effective against viruses, they are only used when the doctor detects a subsequent infection with bacteria.
The body can be assisted in the process of recovery by taking it easy and avoiding physical exertion.
Preventive measures against upper respiratory tract infections
To prevent upper respiratory tract infections, it is important to strengthen the immune defences. Lack of sleep, fatigue, stress and alcohol can weaken the body's defences and therefore should be avoided. Hygiene also is important – it is highly recommended that you wash your hands after touching objects that may house pathogens.