Upper respiratory tract infections are infections of the nose, throat, sinuses and windpipe. Viruses and bacteria are the main causes of upper respiratory tract infections. Most common infections include common cold, sinusitis, bronchitis and laryngitis. One of the conditions, an inflammation of the flap at the base of the tongue that prevents food entering the windpipe (epiglottitis), is potentially a life-threatening condition and requires emergency care.
Most upper respiratory tract infections are short term and can be managed by treating the resulting symptoms. However, they can also be prevented by keeping to personal hygiene practices.
Common symptoms of an upper respiratory tract infection include:
- A runny nose.
- Sneezing and coughing.
- Mild fever (common in children).
- Sore and itchy throat.
- Headache and body pains.
Some specific and less common symptoms include:
- Sinusitis: a stuffy or running nose, lower sense of smell, fever and headache from pressure in the sinuses (air-filled pockets in your face).
- Bronchitis: a stuffy or running nose, sore throat, sneezing, wheezing and tiredness.
- Epiglottitis: high body temperature, difficulty swallowing, a hoarse voice and drooling.
- Laryngitis: loss of voice, dry cough, throat irritations and dry throat.
URTIs are caused by viruses or bacteria. When someone has an upper respiratory tract infection (URTI), sneezing or coughing releases droplets that contain viruses or bacteria. If an uninfected person breathes these droplets in, they can also become infected.
Upper respiratory tract infections are mostly caused by viruses. The infection is easily passed from person-to-person through droplets of saliva and:
- When you have close contact with someone who has a upper respiratory tract infection and did not cover their nose or mouth while sneezing or coughing.
- When you stay in crowded places like buses, aeroplanes and markets.
- When touching your eyes and nose without washing your hands regularly. This is an important way infection is passed along since we touch our faces many times a day.
- When you are ill and your immunity is low. This allows the virus to overpower your immune system and cause an infection.
- When children are in close contact with playmates, like in school. Children also commonly touch their eyes and nose without washing their hands regularly.
You should visit a healthcare provider:
- If your symptoms worsen or fever persists for more than three days.
- If you find breathing to be difficult.
- If you suspect your infection is epiglottitis.
- If the infection recurs often.
You may not be able to prevent all causes of URTI, but you can reduce your risk of an infection. Practice personal hygiene, including handwashing with soap, wear a face-covering in a crowd or when you have a cold, cough into your elbow, eat a healthy diet and keep physically active.
- Cover your mouth with a bent elbow or tissue paper when sneezing or coughing. Throw away the used tissue paper.
- Wash your hands frequently and avoid crowded places.
- You should increase your water intake and eat more fruits (e.g. oranges and watermelons) and vegetables (e.g. carrots, spinach/ efo tete, and fluted pumpkin leaves/ ugwu) to boost your immunity.
- Ginger and honey tea have been proven to help relieve symptoms.
- Rest as much as you can and avoid a smoky and dusty environment.
- You can also do steam inhalation by covering your head with a towel while inhaling steam from a bowl of hot water. The steam should help you loosen mucous and relieve your symptoms.
- You can take pain relief such as paracetamol or ibuprofen for your headache and body aches.
- You can also use a nasal spray or drops to decongest the nose.
- Your healthcare provider may prescribe antibiotics if bacteria cause your infection. Do not take antibiotics for upper respiratory tract infections unless prescribed to you.
Although upper respiratory tract infections are usually easily manageable and clear up with home remedies and rest, you should not hesitate to see a healthcare provider when your symptoms or that of your child get worse and when the infection affects breathing.