Respiratory tract infections (RTIs) can affect the sinuses, throat, airways or lungs. Most RTIs get better without treatment, but sometimes you may need to see your GP.
Check if you have an RTI
Symptoms of an RTI include:
- a cough – you may bring up mucus (phlegm)
- a stuffy or runny nose
- a sore throat ↗
- headaches ↗
- muscle aches
- breathlessness, tight chest or wheezing
- a high temperature (fever)
- feeling generally unwell
Things you can do yourself
Most RTIs pass within 1 to 2 weeks. You can usually treat your symptoms at home.
- get plenty of rest
- drink lots of water to loosen any mucus and make it easier to cough up
- drink a hot lemon and honey drink to help soothe a cough (not suitable for babies)
- gargle with warm salty water if you have a sore throat (children shouldn't try this)
- use an air humidifier or inhale steam from a bowl of hot water (adults only) – you can add menthol or eucalyptus oil
- raise your head up while sleeping using extra pillows to make breathing easier and clear your chest of mucus
- use painkillers to bring down a fever and help ease a sore throat, headaches and muscle pain
- do not let children breathe in steam from a bowl of hot water as there's a risk of scalding
- do not give aspirin to children under 16
- do not smoke – it can make your symptoms worse
A pharmacist can help with an RTI
A pharmacist can suggest treatments to help relieve your symptoms, such as decongestants ↗ and nasal sprays.
You can also buy cough medicines and throat lozenges, although there's little evidence to show they help.
If you're taking these medicines separately, be careful not to take more than the recommended dose.
Certain treatments aren't suitable for children, babies and pregnant women. Your pharmacist can advise you on the best treatment for you or your child.
See a GP if you have an RTI and:
- you feel very unwell or your symptoms get worse
- you cough up blood or bloodstained mucus
- you have had a cough for more than 3 weeks
- you're pregnant
- you're over 65
- you have a weakened immune system – for example, because you have a condition like diabetes ↗ or you're having chemotherapy ↗
- you have a long-term health condition, such as a heart, lung or kidney condition
You may have pneumonia ↗ if your symptoms are severe.
Treatment from your GP
Treatment will depend on the cause of your RTI:
- a virus (like colds ↗) – this usually clears up by itself after a few weeks and antibiotics won't help
- bacteria (like pneumonia ↗) – your GP may prescribe antibiotics ↗ (make sure you complete the whole course as advised by your GP, even if you start to feel better)
Sometimes a sample of your mucus may need to be tested to see what's causing your RTI.
Antibiotics are only used to treat bacterial infections. They're not used for treating viral infections because they don't work for this type of infection.
How to avoid passing RTIs on to others:
- cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze
- wash your hands ↗ regularly
- throw away used tissues immediately
How to avoid getting an RTI
If you keep getting RTIs or you're at a high risk of getting one (for example, because you're over the age of 65 or have a serious long-term health condition), you should:
- ask your GP about the annual flu vaccination ↗ – find out if you're eligible for the free flu vaccine ↗
- ask if you should have the pneumococcal vaccine ↗ – this helps prevent pneumonia
- stop smoking ↗ if you smoke
- drink less alcohol
Causes and types of RTIs
RTIs are often spread in the coughs and sneezes of someone with an infection.
There are several different types. They're usually grouped into upper and lower RTIs.
|Upper RTIs (sinuses and throat)||Lower RTIs (airways and lungs)|
|Common cold ↗||Bronchitis ↗|
|Sinusitis ↗ (sinus infection)||Bronchiolitis ↗|
|Tonsillitis ↗||Chest infection ↗|
|Laryngitis ↗||Pneumonia ↗ (lung infection)|
Flu ↗ can be an upper or lower RTI.
Lower RTIs tend to last longer and can be more serious.