Upper Respiratory Tract Infection
An upper respiratory tract infection includes any and all infections of the airways above the lungs. Common lung infections include pneumonia and acute bronchitis, but below are common upper respiratory tract infections:
- Pharyngitis (includes strep throat)
- Sinus infections
- Rhinitis (includes the common cold)
- Ear infections
Viruses and bacteria most commonly cause the above infections. Bacterial upper respiratory tract infections can be treated directly with antibiotics. Generally, antibiotics are not used for viral infections, with the notable exception being the flu virus, for which we prescribe Tamiflu.
Symptoms of Upper Respiratory Tract Infections
Many of the infections listed above have overlapping symptoms, so it can be difficult to distinguish one from the other. However, a few tips and tricks can help. Below are the three most common causes of upper respiratory tract infection symptoms: pharyngitis, laryngitis, and sinus and nasal infections.
Pharyngitis is a sore throat that worsens with swallowing. Most people are very familiar with pharyngitis symptoms. Another common symptom is neck pain related to swollen lymph nodes. Other less common symptoms include fever, headache, or fatigue. It’s important to distinguish between viral pharyngitis, non-infectious causes, and strep throat, which may have similar symptoms but sometimes requires a strep test.
- Viral pharyngitis: The predominant symptom is a sore throat, which often spreads to the nasal/sinus cavities and causes symptoms of sinus congestion — nasal drip leading to cough, acute bronchitis, or earache. When a viral infection spreads to the upper airways we typically classify it as the common cold. However, it’s important to distinguish it from the following infections:
- The flu: Classic symptoms are high fever and the feeling of being “hit by a bus”
- Mono: Almost all mono patients suffer from profound fatigue and painful lymph nodes in their necks
- Sexually transmitted infections like HIV, gonorrhea, herpes, and syphilis
- Strep throat: Strep throat typically involves severe throat pain (sometimes described as swallowing razor blades) and usually develops abruptly. It rarely causes sinus symptoms or cough, which can point to viral pharyngitis.
- Non-infectious causes: Some lifestyle factors like seasonal allergies, GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease), smoking, or vocal strain (think heated arguments or long-winded conversations at loud concerts) can lead to a sore throat.
Laryngitis, or infection of the larynx, can cause voice hoarseness. These infections can sometimes occur without any other symptoms or in conjunction with acute pharyngitis or other upper respiratory tract infections.
Laryngotracheitis, commonly known as croup, is an infection involving the subglottic airway. Croup symptoms include a barking cough and stridor (high-pitched whistling or other harsh sounds) while breathing. Most symptoms are self-limiting, but can rarely be accompanied by intense swelling that leads to airway obstruction.
Infections can even extend into the bronchi, leading to a form of bronchitis that often presents with coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath.
Sinus and Nasal Infections
Most sinus and nasal passage infections are classified as either viral or bacterial. It’s important to distinguish between the two because bacterial infections are treated with antibiotics and viral infections are not (with the notable exception of the flu). Doctors can distinguish between a viral sinus infection and a bacterial sinus infection by looking at two factors:
- Length of infection: If symptoms persist for 10 or more days without improving, a bacterial sinus infection is likely. If it has been less than 10 days, it’s likely a viral infection.
- Double dip in symptoms: A double-dip in symptoms is when symptoms improve after a day or two but suddenly worsen. This could be a sign of bacterial infection. If you have shortness of breath, a cough with mucus, or a fever, you could be developing pneumonia. Schedule an appointment with your doctor to develop a treatment plan.
How to Get Rid of Upper Respiratory Tract Infections
Once your doctor determines whether the infection is viral or bacterial, they can create a treatment plan to address your pharyngitis, sinus infection, or laryngitis. Penicillin is usually prescribed as an antibiotic for bacterial infections. If you are immunocompromised, have a penicillin allergy or risk factors for antibiotic-resistant infections, your doctor can determine the right antibiotic regimen for you.
For a viral infection, little can be done to speed healing. Instead, treatment is focused on eliminating symptoms so the course of the infection isn’t as debilitating. The flu, however, can be treated with Tamiflu. The earlier you take Tamiflu, the quicker the flu will resolve and the less severe your symptoms will become. Studies have shown that if you don’t take Tamiflu within 48 hours of symptom onset, you are unlikely to benefit from the medication. That’s why it’s important to see a doctor as soon as possible, and telemedicine and urgent care are often the quickest options for treatment, allowing you to get a prescription the same day.
When Should I See a Doctor for an Upper Respiratory Tract Infection?
If you have any of the following symptoms, it’s best to see a doctor as soon as possible to receive your first dose of antibiotics or Tamiflu.
- Severe throat pain that feels like you are swallowing knives
- Sinus pain and congestion for more than 10 days
- Double dip symptoms
- Abrupt symptom onset and body aches, sometimes referred to as feeling like you were run over by a bus
- Sore throat with a significant amount of fatigue
While upper respiratory tract infections are common, they can be a nuisance. It can be difficult to know whether you need to see a doctor or not. But the sooner you see a doctor, the sooner you’ll be able to receive prescriptions to speed up recovery. Schedule an appointment with The Kingsley Clinic today to begin your treatment plan.