What are the different types of Respiratory Tract Infections (RTIs) and their main associated symptoms?

The sections below aim to explain common types of RTIs and their associated symptoms. Some symptoms can be common among multiple RTIs and can differ in intensity from person to person. Most RTIs resolve within one to two weeks. You can usually treat your symptoms at home.1

If you are at high risk to the effect of infection and think you have an RTI, make an appointment to see your doctor.

Please click on each accordion to read the full description. Please also note this is not an exhaustive list.

Could it be coronavirus?

If you have a high temperature, a new and continuous cough, or a loss or change to your sense of smell or taste, you could have the novel coronavirus 2019 (COVID-19). Please consult with a healthcare professional1

Upper RTIs

Common cold2,3

The common cold is caused by viruses that easily spread to other people.

Symptoms usually come on gradually and include:

  • Blocked or runny nose
  • Sore throat
  • Headache
  • Muscle aches
  • Cough
  • Sneezing
  • Generally low-grade fever

Common cold symptoms usually last for 7-10 days. During this time, the cold can be passed on to others.

Pharyngitis/sore throat4

Pharyngitis is an inflammation in the back of the mouth and throat. Usually, it’s simply called a sore throat. Most of the time, it’s caused by viral infections, but it can also be caused by bacterial infections, which tend to be more severe.

Most sore throats will get better on their own within about a week. Your doctor will prescribe suitable medication if needed.

Symptoms include:

  • painful throat, especially when swallowing
  • dry scratchy throat
  • redness in the back of the mouth
  • bad breath
  • mild cough
  • swollen neck glands

You may also have a runny or blocked nose, sneezing, raised temperature and a tickly cough

Sinusitis5,6

The sinuses are a system of small, hollow spaces behind our cheekbones and forehead.

Sinusitis, also known as a sinus infection, happens when fluid builds up in the sinuses. This allows bacteria and viruses to grow, and an infection can develop. 

Sinusitis generally clears up on its own within 2 to 3 weeks, but medicines can help if it takes a long time to go away.

It’s common to get sinusitis after having a cold or flu

Symptoms include:

  • pain, swelling and tenderness around your cheeks, eyes or forehead
  • a blocked nose
  • a reduced sense of smell
  • green or yellow mucus from your nose
  • a sinus headache
  • raised temperature
  • toothache
  • bad breath

Tonsillitis7

Tonsillitis is an inflammation of the tonsils behind our throat. They become red and swollen, and it can feel like a bad cold or flu. Tonsillitis usually clears up on its own after a few days. Your doctor will prescribe suitable medication if needed.

Symptoms include:

  • Raised temperature
  • Sore throat
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Hoarseness or no voice
  • Coughing
  • Headache
  • Feeling sick
  • Earache
  • Feeling tired (fatigue)
  • Swollen or painful glands in your neck

If you’ve had your tonsils removed, you will not get tonsillitis.

Laryngitis8

Laryngitis is an inflammation of the voice box (larynx). It’s often associated with other illnesses, such as a cold, flu, throat infection, or tonsillitis. This means you may have symptoms in addition to those listed below.

Laryngitis is usually caused by a viral infection. Sometimes, it can be caused by damage to the larynx from straining your voice. For most of us, it clears up within about a week.

Symptoms include:

  • Hoarseness or no voice, which can last for up to a week after other symptoms have gone
  • Sore throat
  • Raised temperature
  • Irritating cough
  • A constant need to clear your throat

Sometimes the throat swelling can be severe and make it difficult to breathe. If this happens, you should visit your doctor right away.

Lower RTIs

Chest infection9

A chest infection is an infection of the lungs or large airways. The symptoms can be unpleasant but will usually get better on their own in about 7 to 10 days. A chest infection often follows a cold or the flu.

Chest infection commonly may either be caused by:

a virus (like viral bronchitis) – this usually clears up by itself after a few weeks and antibiotics will not help

bacteria (like pneumonia) – your doctor may prescribe antibiotics (make sure you complete the whole course as advised by the GP, even if you start to feel better)

Symptoms include:

  • Cough, possibly with green or yellow mucus, which can last up to three weeks
  • Wheezing and shortness of breath
  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • Raised temperature
  • Headache
  • Aching muscles
  • Feeling tired (fatigue)

Acute Bronchitis10

Acute bronchitis is an infection of the main airways of the lungs (bronchi), which swell and produce mucus. This is what makes us cough. Acute bronchitis, often called a chest cold, is the most common type of bronchitis.

Smoking can damage the bronchi, causing them to become inflamed. This can make bronchitis worse.

Acute bronchitis usually gets better on its own within three weeks.

Symptoms include:

  • Coughing with or without mucus
  • Soreness in the chest
  • Feeling tired (fatigue)
  • Headache
  • Body aches
  • Sore throat

Pneumonia11,12

Pneumonia is an inflammation of the air sacs in the lungs, which causes them to fill with fluid.

Pneumonia is usually caused by bacteria or a virus. It can develop suddenly over 24 to 48 hours or more slowly over several days.

Pneumonia can affect anyone, although some of us are at a higher risk. Babies, young children, elderly people, people who smoke or have a chronic health condition (such as diabetes, a heart condition, or chronic lung diseases), or take medicine that weakens the immune system  are more likely to get pneumonia.

Symptoms include:

  • Cough, which may be dry or produce thick yellow, green, brown, or blood-stained mucus
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Raised temperature
  • Feeling generally unwell
  • Sweating and shivering
  • Loss of appetite
  • Chest pain, that may get worse when breathing in

Less common symptoms can include:

  • Coughing up blood (hemoptysis)
  • Headaches
  • Feeling tired (fatigue)
  • Wheezing
  • Joint and muscle pain
  • Feeling confused and disorientated, which is especially common in elderly people

Influenza (flu)13,14,15

Influenza (flu) is a common infection caused by the influenza virus. It can be serious and spreads easily from person to person. It’s not the same as the common cold; the flu tends to come on suddenly, is more severe, and lasts longer.

Anyone can get the flu; however, some of us are at higher risk of complications, including:

  • People aged 65 and over
  • Pregnant women
  • People with a long-term medical condition
  • Child between 2 to 12 years old

If you have the flu and are at risk of flu complications, you should contact your healthcare professional.

Most people feel better within a week or two, but some people feel weak for some time afterwards.

Most of us will recover without any further problems, but the flu can sometimes cause other complications, such as pneumonia.

The first step in preventing the flu may be to get a flu vaccine each year.

Symptoms include:

  • Raised temperature
  • Aching body
  • Feeling tired (fatigue) or exhausted
  • Dry cough
  • Sore throat
  • Headache
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Loss of appetite
  • Diarrhea or Stomach pain
  • Feeling sick and being sick

Children can get these symptoms as well as pain in their ears, and they can appear less active.

Do not hesitate to contact your doctor if you want to learn more about the RTI or if you believe you may have one because of the symptoms you are experiencing.

References

  1. National Health Service. Respiratory tract infections. Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/respiratory-tract-infection. Accessed October 14, 2020.
  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Common Colds: Protect Yourself and Others. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/features/rhinoviruses/index.html. Accessed October 14, 2020.
  3. Mayo Clinic. Common cold. Available at:  https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/common-cold/symptoms-causes/syc-20351605. Accessed October 14, 2020.
  4. National Health Service. Sore throat. Available at: https://www2.hse.ie/conditions/sore-throat.html. Accessed October 14, 2020.
  5. National Health Service. Sinusitis. Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/sinusitis-sinus-infection/. Accessed October 14, 2020.
  6. Health Service Executive. Sinusitis. Available at: https://www.hse.ie/eng/health/az/s/sinusitis/. Accessed October 14, 2020.
  7. National Health Service website. Tonsillitis. Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/tonsillitis/. Accessed October 14, 2020.
  8. National Health Service. Inform, Laryngitis. Available at: https://www.nhsinform.scot/illnesses-and-conditions/ears-nose-and-throat/laryngitis. Accessed October 14, 2020.
  9. National Health Service. Chest infection. Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/chest-infection. Accessed October 14, 2020.
  10. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Common illnesses, chest cold (Acute Bronchitis). Available at:  https://www.cdc.gov/antibiotic-use/community/for-patients/common-illnesses/bronchitis.html. Accessed October 14, 2020.
  11. National Health Service. Pneumonia. Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/pneumonia/. Accessed October 14, 2020.
  12. Health Service Executive. Pneumonia Available at: https://www.hse.ie/eng/health/az/c/community-acquired-pneumonia/. Accessed October 14, 2020.
  13. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Key Facts About Influenza (Flu). Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/keyfacts.htm. Accessed October 14, 2020.
  14. National Health Service. Flu. Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/flu/. Accessed October 14, 2020.
  15. Health Service Executive. Flu – Symptoms and diagnosis. Available at: https://www2.hse.ie/conditions/flu/flu-symptoms-and-diagnosis.html. Accessed October 14, 2020.

GLO2183711