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29 Dec 2020

Respiratory tract infections: causes, symptoms, diagnostics, treatment

Respiratory tract infections: causes, symptoms, diagnostics, treatment Respiratory tract infections: causes, symptoms, diagnostics, treatment

With the coming of cool, damp, and rainy weather, many people experience respiratory problems caused by viral and bacterial infections. According to statistics, respiratory diseases occupy the leading positions among all diseases in the world (adults - 27.6%, adolescents - 39.9%, children - 61%). Therefore, today we want to dwell on such diseases in more detail so that you can take the necessary measures to preserve your health in a timely manner.

Short information about respiratory tract infections

Specialty/treated by
Infectious disease (viral disease)
Otolaryngologist (ENT doctor), family doctor
Symptoms Fever, general malaise, muscle pain, runny nose, stuffy nose, coughing, sneezing, headache, general weakness, and others
Complications Complicated pneumonia, chronic infections of the respiratory tract (e.g. chronic bronchitis, chronic sinusitis)
Usual onset 2–12 days after exposure
Duration Viral infection – 4-7 days, bacterial infection – up to several months; recurring, chronic bacterial infections – up to several months
Causes Viruses, bacteria, fungal infections
Diagnostic method Based on symptoms, physical examination, x-ray, blood test, tests of sputum, nasal discharges
Prevention Leading a healthy lifestyle, avoiding crowded places during seasonal diseases epidemic, wear a mask, treating any disease timely
Treatment Symptomatic treatment (antipyretics, vasoconstrictive nasal sprays, etc.), antivirals, antibiotics (in confirmed bacterial infection), antifungal drugs (in confirmed fungal infection)
Frequency 27% of adults and 61% children during fall-spring season

Briefly about the human respiratory system: what does it represent, its basic functions

The respiratory system consists of the upper (nose, sinuses, pharynx) and lower respiratory tract (larynx, trachea, bronchi, lungs). The main function of this system is gas exchange between the human body and the environment.

Causes of development of respiratory tract infections - what contributes to the appearance of the disease?

respiratory infections causes

- Bacterial causes (staphylococci, pneumococci, streptococci, pertussis, meningococcus, mycobacteria, etc.);
- Viral causes (influenza viruses, adenoviruses, coronaviruses, enteroviruses, rhinoviruses, herpes viruses, measles virus, etc.);
- Fungal causes (fungi of the genus Candida, aspergillus, actinomycetes).

In addition, external allergens are often the cause of respiratory system damage. For example, household allergens (dust, pets, etc.), allergies to certain plants or foods, etc.

In addition, the provoking factor is excessive consumption of alcoholic beverages, hypothermia (overcooling), the presence of diseases of other organs and systems (diabetes mellitus, heart disease), as well as a hereditary factor.

The typical flow of respiratory disease is as follows: an individual contracts viral infection and develops such symptoms as fever, sore throat, runny nose, headache, general weakness, muscle pain, loss of smell, etc. The symptoms usually persist for 5-7 days, then the infection and its symptoms either subside or continue and the symptoms either get worse in general, or only some of them remain but get worse. For instance, a person may not have a runny nose but the overall malaise and cough persist or cough even becomes wet and more severe. If the symptoms persist or become worse, it indicates the addition of the bacterial infection that should be treated with antibiotics. Viral infection starting as a common cold can get complicated and turn into acute bronchitis or pneumonia that are life-threatening diseases if they are not treated correctly and timely.

Main infectious diseases of the respiratory tract: characteristic symptoms

respiratory infections types

- Rhinitis is an inflammation of the lining of the nose. Patients usually complain of a runny nose, sneezing, malaise, and watery eyes. In some cases, the body temperature rises slightly. In the event that a bacterial infection has become the causative agent of the disease, then discharge from the nose may contain a purulent component, i.e. become thick and have a yellowish or greenish color.
- Inflammation of the sinuses (sinusitis, ethmoiditis, frontal sinusitis). The factor of the appearance and development of the disease in most cases is the bacterial cause of respiratory tract infections. Typical symptoms, in this case, are: nasal congestion, runny nose (discharges are thick, yellowish or greenish), difficulty in nasal breathing, general weakness, headache, impaired sense of smell, fever, etc.
- Tonsillitis (sore throat) is inflammation in the oropharynx in the area of the tonsils. It should be noted that the disease can be of both viral and bacterial etiology. What are the symptoms of this problem? First of all, patients note the presence of sore throat (especially when swallowing), general malaise, fever, increase of the size of the tonsils. In the case of viral sore throat, during the examination, the doctor notices redness and inflammation of the oropharyngeal mucosa, as well as slight swelling of the pharynx. If we are talking about a purulent sore throat, then on the tonsils there are greenish-yellowish, friable overlays of a purulent nature.
- Pharyngitis is a disease characterized by inflammation of the pharyngeal mucosa. The main manifestations are sore throat, dry cough, shortness of breath, and general malaise.
- Laryngitis is an inflammation of the larynx mucosa, sometimes the epiglottis, vocal cords. It is characterized by hoarseness, cough, shortness of breath, general malaise, and fever.
- Tracheitis is an inflammation of the lining of the trachea (the tube that serves as a link between the larynx and the main bronchi). In this case, patients have a dry cough (sometimes with sputum discharge), weakness, and fever.
- Pneumonia - inflammation of the lung tissue. The cause of the disease, usually, is bacteria, in particular pneumococcus. 

Diagnostics of respiratory infections

respiratory infections treatment

The main complaints of patients include: fever, chills, cough, etc.

Respiratory tract infections are quite complex diseases, the basis for the successful treatment of which is high-quality and comprehensive diagnostics, which includes radiography, bronchoscopy, as well as laboratory tests:

- Clinical blood test;
- Bacterial culture from throat and nose with antibioticogram (list of antibiotics to which present bacteria are susceptible);
- Bacterial culture from the maxillary sinus with an antibioticogram;
- Sputum culture with antibioticogram;
- PCR studies for the presence of bacteria and viruses;
- Immunoglobulins A, M, G.

Treatment of respiratory infections

zithromax for respiratory infections treatment

Treatment tactics are selected individually for each specific case based on the clinical picture, appointed test results, and comorbidities of a patient. In general, the therapy of viral infections consists of symptomatic measures, i.e. use of antipyretics (anti-fever medications) such as paracetamol and ibuprofen, use of nasal sprays to relieve nasal congestion, lozenge for sore throat, gargling. If a patient has a cough, they may be prescribed expectorants to facilitate the outflow of sputum. Inhalations for the reduction of inflammation can also be done. A patient should observe bed rest, ensure good ventilation of the room, avoid overcooling, and drink plenty of fluids. If the causative agent of the viral infection is identified by tests, antivirals can also be prescribed. Antibiotics must not be used unless you go to a doctor and they prescribe you these drugs based on the examination and tests.

Bacterial infections therapy consists of the same measures as a viral infection but with the addition of antibiotics, for instance, such modern drugs as Zithromax (Azithromycin) that has to be used for only 3 days for sinusitis or tonsillitis can be appointed. However, you should not buy the drug on your own without consulting your doctor as doctors usually prescribe antibiotics taking into account available epidemiological situation information, i.e. whether the bacteria most common in your region in this season is sensitive to this antibiotic or not. When you take antibiotics, you should also keep in mind that if you started feeling better before you finished the treatment course, you still must continue the course till the appointed date because otherwise the bacterial can develop resistance and you will suffer from later infection exacerbation or worsening of your current condition.

Prevention of respiratory diseases

respiratory infections prophylaxis

Leading a healthy lifestyle is the best prophylaxis of respiratory tract diseases:

- Proper and balanced nutrition;
- Walking in the fresh air;
- Minimizing bad habits (smoking, drinking, staying up late, etc.);
- Finding a balance between work and rest,
- Healthy sleep,
- Drinking enough water (1.5-2 liters a day);
- Ventilate your room and office;
- Do physical exercises regularly,
- Avoid crowded places during seasonal epidemics, wear a mask, etc.

Also swimming, taking a contrast shower, and doing special breathing exercises are excellent prevention of respiratory diseases.

Compliance with the above recommendations will allow you to maintain the health of the body as a whole, and the respiratory system in particular.

Post by: Kylie Richardson, General Practitioner, Rotterdam, Netherlands

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