Respiratory Problems, Age 12 and Older
Most adults and older children have several respiratory infections each year. Respiratory problems can be as minor as the common cold or as serious as Reference pneumonia Opens New Window. They may affect the upper respiratory system (nose, mouth, sinuses, and throat) or the lower bronchial tubes and lungs. See a picture of the Reference respiratory system Opens New Window Reference Opens New Window.
Upper respiratory system
The upper respiratory system includes the nose, mouth, sinuses, and throat. When you have an upper respiratory infection, you may feel uncomfortable, have a stuffy nose, and sound very congested. Other symptoms of an upper respiratory infection include:
- Facial pain or pressure.
- A runny or stuffy nose, which may lead to blockage of the nasal passages and cause you to breathe through your mouth.
- A sore throat.
- Irritability, restlessness, poor appetite, and decreased activity level.
- Coughing, especially when lying down.
- Fever that occurs suddenly and may reach 103°F (39°C) or higher.
Lower respiratory system
The lower respiratory system includes the bronchial tubes and lungs. Respiratory problems are less common in the lower respiratory system than upper respiratory system.
The symptoms of a lower respiratory (bronchial tubes and lungs) problem usually are more severe than symptoms of an upper respiratory (mouth, nose, sinuses, and throat) problem.
Symptoms of lower respiratory system infections include:
- Cough, which continues throughout the day and night, often producing green, yellow, brown, or gray mucus (sputum) from the lungs.
- Fever, which may be high with some lower respiratory system infections such as pneumonia.
Reference Difficulty breathing Opens New Window. You may notice:
- Shortness of breath.
- Grunting, which is heard during the breathing out (exhaling) phase of breathing.
- Reference Wheezing Opens New Window.
- Flaring the nostrils and using the neck, chest, and abdominal muscles to breathe, causing a "sucking in" between or under the ribs (retractions).
- Chest pain with exertion or when you take a deep breath.
Respiratory problems may have many causes.
Viral infections are the most common cause of upper respiratory symptoms. Symptoms of a viral illness often come on quickly (over hours to a day or two) without prior illness. Common viral illnesses include colds and Reference influenza (flu) Opens New Window.
- Reference Colds are minor upper respiratory illnesses that usually go away without treatment. Symptoms may include cough, mild sore throat, nasal congestion, runny nose or sneezing, and occasionally a fever.
- Influenza (flu) symptoms are usually more severe than a cold. The key symptoms in adults are fever and body aches. Headache, eye pain, muscle aches, and cough are also common. For more information, see the topic Reference Influenza (Seasonal Flu).
Antibiotics are not used to treat viral illnesses and do not alter the course of viral infections. Unnecessary use of an antibiotic exposes you to the risks of an Reference allergic reaction Opens New Window and antibiotic side effects, such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, rashes, and yeast infections. Antibiotics also may kill beneficial bacteria and encourage the development of dangerous Reference antibiotic-resistant Opens New Window bacteria.
Bacterial infections may develop after a viral illness, such as a cold or influenza, and are less common than viral illnesses. Bacterial infections may affect the upper or lower respiratory system. Symptoms tend to localize to one area. In the upper respiratory system, the most common sites of bacterial infections are the sinuses and throat. In the lower respiratory system, the most common site is the lungs (pneumonia).
Bacterial infections are more common in smokers, people exposed to Reference secondhand smoke Opens New Window, and people with chronic lung disease (such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease [Reference COPD Opens New Window]) and other chronic medical problems. Antibiotics can effectively treat most bacterial infections.
Allergies, especially Reference hay fever, are another common respiratory problem. Symptoms include sneezing, clear runny drainage from the nose and eyes, itchy eyes or nose, and stuffy, congested ears and sinuses. The symptoms of allergies often last longer than a typical viral respiratory infection. For more information, see the topic Reference Allergic Rhinitis.
Reference Asthma Opens New Window is a chronic disease of the respiratory system. It causes Reference inflammation Opens New Window and narrowing in the tubes that carry air to the lungs (bronchial tubes). The inflammation leads to difficulty breathing, Reference wheezing Opens New Window, tightness in the chest, and cough.
Asthma often begins during childhood and may last throughout a person's life. The cause of asthma is not clearly known. It is more common in people who also have allergies. For more information, see the topic Reference Asthma in Children or Reference Asthma in Teens and Adults.
Reference Check your symptoms to decide if and when you should see a doctor.
|By:||Reference Healthwise Staff||Last Revised: Reference November 15, 2012|
|Medical Review:||Reference William H. Blahd, Jr., MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine
Reference David Messenger, MD