How do I Treat a Respiratory Infection?

A respiratory infection can be defined as an upper or lower infection, and most people are familiar with both. To make matters confusing, upper and lower infections may occur concurrently. Upper respiratory areas include the sinuses, throat, ears, the trachea and occasionally the bronchi. Lower respiratory areas sometimes include the bronchi too, but most often refer to the lungs. How to treat these infections really depends on cause, and here it should be understood that these infections have numerous causes.

The main causes of upper and lower respiratory infections are viruses and bacteria, and more commonly viruses affect the upper respiratory system, though they can also affect the lungs. Doctors have been working assiduously to help people understand that even though those infections are miserable they’re not treatable with antibiotics. Antibiotics are only indicated when the infection is bacterial, and it’s not a good idea to treat viral infections with antibiotics because it is ineffective and can create bacteria that is antibiotic-resistant.

This doesn’t mean that a viral infection can’t become bacterial, but this usually doesn’t occur at the onset, especially with conditions like common coughs or colds. Down the road, if a cough, cold or sinus congestion isn’t improving though, this may indicate presence of bacteria and requires different treatment.


For most types of the respiratory infection, the best treatment is to drink plenty of liquids, get some rest the first few days, and wait for symptoms to resolve. Most colds should peak in misery at about the seventh to tenth day, and symptoms should then begin to improve. If, in the middle of a cold or virus, you suddenly feel much worse and develop a fever along with coughing up green or brown mucus, it could mean that the cold has become a bacterial infection and may require different treatment. Most people simply have a few days of feeling miserable and then bounce back to wellness without needing much treatment from doctors.

There are some exceptions to this rule. Certain viruses and yearly flu viruses may be very dangerous to some populations. Respiratory synctial virus (RSV) is especially dangerous to children with compromised immune systems, to infants and to kids born prematurely. There are actually medications that may prevent this virus, and children might require breathing assistance or treatments if they have RSV. Fortunately RSV can be easily diagnosed with a nasal swab of mucus.

Yearly flu viruses pose a special danger to the very young and the very old, and some doctors give special flu “boosters” that can help fight these respiratory illnesses. Prevention is even better, and yearly flu shots are a great way to never have to treat these viruses.

Those suspecting RSV or actual flu should see a doctor right away to determine specialized treatment. Parents of infants and babies should err on the side of caution, even if they think a respiratory infection may just be a cold. Similarly those who work with the elderly should suspect flu or even bacterial infection earlier and rule these out when determining a treatment course.

For the majority of respiratory infection types though, rest and fluids are far better than ineffective antibiotics. Look for danger symptoms that may develop like mid to high fever, significant cough, wheezing, lethargy, difficulty breathing, appearance of pain, and change to thick green mucus. These are always good indications to see a doctor.


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