Respiratory Tract & Throat Infections

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The respiratory tract describes the parts of the body that are involved in respiration (breathing). The respiratory tract is usually split into two sections - the upper respiratory tract, and the lower respiratory tract to help describe where an infection may be coming from. Respiratory tract infections (RTIs) can be caused by viral or bacterial infections, however the vast majority are caused by viruses and will get better without antibiotics. 

  • Upper respiratory tract infection often affect the nose, sinuses and throat.
  • Lower respiratory tract infections affect the lower airways and lungs. 

The commonest symptom for patients suffering with an upper respiratory tract infection is a cough. Patient can also suffer with headaches, nasal congestion or a runny nose, a sore throat, sneezing and muscle aches.

Patients suffering with a lower respiratory tract infection also have a cough but it is usually more severe and associated with bringing up more phlegm and mucus. If you have a lower respiratory tract infection you may also feel short of breath, be breathing quickly or feel a tightness or wheeze in your chest.

Sore throats belong to the upper respiratory tract infection group due to the throat sitting within the upper respiratory tract. A sore throat is often accompanied by many of the other symtpoms (cough, headache, nasal congestion). As with the other RTIs a sore throat can be caused by viral infections or by bacterial infections. There are certain features of sore throats that indicate that the infection could be bacterial and if these are presented antibiotics might be helpful. However the vast majority of sore throats are also caused by viruses and the patient will recover over a 7 to 10 day period. 

Antibiotics are being prescribed for many infections that are caused by viruses. In these situations they will not help treat the infection and they may lead to side effects for the patient. Using antibiotics when they are not needed contributes to the now global problem of resistance of antibiotics (antimicrobial resistance). Patients and doctors need to work together to try and reduce unnecessary antibiotic prescribing safely. 

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