TrustCare | Understanding Respiratory Infections

Understanding Respiratory Infections

in Allergies/Sinus Sore Throat Walk-In Urgent Care

Your throat hurts. You can’t stop coughing. You’re tired. Your sinuses are clogged shut – or they’re so runny that you can’t keep enough Kleenex on hand. Even breathing may be a challenge.

Welcome to the world of respiratory infections. With so many different types of respiratory infections out there – everything from the common cold to sinusitis to bronchitis – it can be hard to know what you have or how to treat the infection properly on your own.

Let’s review the most common respiratory infections, what symptoms to watch for, and when you should seek care, so you can breathe easier the next time a respiratory infection strikes.

What Is a Respiratory Infection?

Respiratory infections affect your respiratory system, which is the part of your body responsible for breathing. There are two types of respiratory infections: upper and lower. Upper respiratory infections affect your sinuses and throat, while lower respiratory infections affect your airways and lungs.

We’ll review upper respiratory infections first, since they are more common. However, both types of respiratory infections can develop complications without treatment.

Caution: Virus at Work

It’s very easy to catch an upper respiratory infection – all it takes is a virus entering your respiratory system, typically through respiratory droplets or hand-to-hand contact. For instance, you can get sick if an infected person:

  • Sneezes or coughs without covering their nose and mouth
  • Sneezes or coughs into their hand and then touches your hand
  • Sneezes or coughs onto a shared surface (such as a doorknob or tabletop) that you touch

As soon as you breathe in these germ-filled droplets – or touch your own nose, mouth, or eyes – the infection enters your body and gets to work.

Who’s at Risk?

Anyone can catch an upper respiratory infection. But certain people are more at risk, including:

  • Children (who often wash their hands less frequently than adults and are more likely to put their fingers in their own nose, mouth, or eyes)
  • Elderly adults
  • People with weakened immune systems

Symptoms of Upper Respiratory Infections

An urgent care provider can likely diagnose your infection based on a physical exam (including listening to your chest) and your symptoms. However, some infections may warrant a nasal swab, throat swab, sputum test (phlegm from your lungs), lung X-ray, or other tests.

Common symptoms of upper respiratory infections include:

  • Cough
  • Fever
  • Sore throat
  • Hoarse voice
  • Fatigue
  • Runny nose
  • And more

How Long Do Upper Respiratory Infections Last?

Upper respiratory infections typically last 1-2 weeks and go away on their own with over-the-counter medication, rest, and plenty of fluids to avoid dehydration. Because viruses don’t respond to antibiotics, you will only need a prescription for antibiotics if you have a bacterial infection (such as strep throat).

If your symptoms worsen or do not improve after two weeks, be sure to contact your urgent care provider.

Is It Just a Cold, or Is It a Sinus Infection?

The term “common cold” refers to at least 200 different viruses that cause a wide range of symptoms. A cold usually lasts 7-10 days, although your cough may last longer.

A sinus infection is when a virus causes your sinuses to become inflamed. Sinuses are the hollow spaces behind the bones of your cheeks, nose, eyebrows, and forehead. In addition to typical cold symptoms, you may have:

  • Green mucus in your nose
  • Post-nasal drip (mucus that drips into your throat)
  • Stuffiness or congestion
  • Pain when you press on your face

If your sinus infection symptoms worsen after 5-7 days, you could have a bacterial infection that requires antibiotics. Ask your urgent care provider to learn more.

Is the Flu an Upper Respiratory Infection?

Colds and the flu share many symptoms. But the flu is not considered an upper respiratory infection, since it usually affects both the upper and lower respiratory system. With flu, a high fever and body aches often accompany the cold symptoms listed above.

The Lowdown on Lower Respiratory Infections

In general, lower respiratory infections last longer and are more serious than upper respiratory infections – although the symptoms may mimic an upper respiratory infection at first.

Two of the most common types of lower respiratory infections are:

  • Bronchitis
  • Pneumonia


Bronchitis is an inflammation of the lining of your bronchial tubes, which carry air to and from your lungs. Bronchitis often develops from a cold or other upper respiratory infection.

If you have bronchitis, you may cough up thick and/or discolored mucus and experience pain or discomfort in your chest. Bronchitis usually improves within 7-10 days, although your cough may linger for weeks after. Visit an urgent care provider if your cough:

  • Lasts longer than three weeks
  • Produces blood
  • Causes wheezing or shortness of breath
  • Prevents you from sleeping


Bronchitis can develop into pneumonia if the infection spreads from one part of your respiratory tract to another. Pneumonia is a potentially life-threatening infection that inflames the air sacs in one or both lungs. If the air sacs fill with fluid or pus, you may experience coughing with heavy phlegm, fever, chills, and difficulty breathing.

Seek treatment right away if you think you might have pneumonia. Like other respiratory infections, pneumonia is most serious for young children, elderly adults, and people with weakened immune systems – but it can be dangerous for anyone.

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