Treating cold, flu and other respiratory infections

photo by: Shutterstock Photo

Have you ever woken up in the morning and suddenly realized you have a sore throat? Maybe your kids have come home from school with a cough and runny nose. In cases like these, it’s likely a respiratory infection that’s to blame.

Respiratory infections are common and can affect people multiple times throughout the year. They are caused by viruses or bacteria and spread through contact with someone who is ill or by touching items that have come into contact with germ droplets.

Dr. Curtis Wolfe, a physician with LMH Health Primary Care on south Iowa Street, said respiratory infections have an incubation period of up to three days. During the incubation period, people are contagious after day two and in most cases, don’t show any symptoms. Symptoms generally appear when the body begins to fight the infection.

Common symptoms include:

• Coughing

• Ear pain

• Sneezing

• Runny or stuffy nose

• Sore throat

• Trouble breathing

“There are multiple types of respiratory infections,” Wolfe said. “The most common are rhinoviruses, or what we know as the common cold, which most people can catch up to two times a year.”

Types of respiratory infections

Respiratory illnesses fall into two main categories: viral and bacterial.

Viruses are the most common cause of respiratory infections. They include household names such as influenza, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), coronavirus, measles, mumps and rhinovirus.

“Viral infections tend to last up to 10 days and can, when they’re mild, respond well to over-the-counter medications,” Wolfe said. “Medications such as decongestants, cough suppressants and saline nasal sprays can help alleviate symptoms.”

Bacterial infections tend last longer and require more medical attention. Common bacterial infections include sinusitis, strep throat, staph infections, bronchitis and pneumonia.

“Bacterial respiratory infections can present with more and more severe symptoms than a viral infection,” Wolfe said. “In most cases, they last anywhere from 10 to 14 days and need a combination of prescribed and over-the-counter medications.”

As the infection progresses, individuals can expect muscle aches, chills, sweats and a fever.

Respiratory infections are also categorized by the area in which the infection is located. Wolfe said an upper respiratory infection affects the eyes, ears, nose and throat, while lower respiratory infections are primarily found in the lungs but can also affect parts of the throat. Both typically respond well to over-the-counter medications. In some cases, a steroid or antibiotic is needed to provide relief from the symptoms of lower respiratory infections.

Risk factors and treatment

Everyone is at risk of catching a respiratory infection, but some groups are at higher risk. These include children who are in school or attend daycare, college students who live in close proximity with multiple other people, and those living in nursing homes or long-term care centers.

“People with certain medical conditions are at higher risk of catching a respiratory infection. These include chronic diseases and lung or heart conditions, as well as those undergoing cancer treatment or taking immune system suppressants,” Wolfe said.

Once symptoms appear, take steps to prevent spreading the infection to others, such as coughing into your elbow or a tissue, frequent handwashing and sanitizing products you touch.

“If you are symptomatic, it is important that you do not share food or drinks,” Wolfe said. “It is also a good idea to replace your toothbrush. If you wear contacts, switch to glasses to prevent touching your eyes and developing an eye infection.”

If your symptoms aren’t severe, you can start treatment at home with over-the-counter medications.

“This is the time to try to identify where the symptoms are coming from and address them using targeted over-the-counter medications, such as decongestants and cough suppressants,” Wolfe said. “It is important to stay hydrated and prioritize getting six to eight hours of sleep in addition to any over-the-counter medications you take. Some people find that taking vitamin C, D or zinc can help with energy levels.”

If the infection begins to affect your sleep, your symptoms do not improve with over-the-counter medication, or your symptoms last longer than 10 days, it is time to contact your primary care provider or visit a walk-in clinic.

“If your body is struggling to fight the infection, that is where we come in,” Wolfe said. “We are able to run tests to figure out the exact type of respiratory infection it is and prescribe medication to target the infection and provide relief.”

In some cases, quick action is needed. In any of these situations, go to the emergency department or call 911:

• Chest pain without a cough

• Child 5 and under who has a fever over 102 degrees that is not responding to medications (such as Tylenol or ibuprofen) and has lasted 48 hours

• Fainting spell after coughing

• Struggling to breathe

“Choosing when and where to seek care for a respiratory infection does not have to be a struggle,” Wolfe said. “Listen to your body, call your provider if you have any questions and most importantly, focus on rest.”

— Kade Han is the social media and digital communication specialist at LMH Health, which is a major sponsor of the Journal-World’s Health section.


Welcome to the new Our old commenting system has been replaced with Facebook Comments. There is no longer a separate username and password login step. If you are already signed into Facebook within your browser, you will be able to comment. If you do not have a Facebook account and do not wish to create one, you will not be able to comment on stories.