Respiratory Tract Infections

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Respiratory tract infections are a huge health issue throughout the world. In fact, as a group these diseases are among the leading causes of death from contagious diseases. Many germs can cause these infections and each one could present a variety of symptoms. Basically they can be divided into two groups: upper respiratory infections e.g. common cold, and lower respiratory infections such as croup, bronchitis and pneumonia. In most cases these infections are colds or mild influenza (flu) and are short term and not dangerous. In rare cases, flu can be severe or infections may affect the throat, ears, and sinuses or even develop into pneumonia.

Several germs may share some common features, such as how they survive and how they are transmitted. Symptoms for each infection can sometimes be different in children and adults. Some germs can cause illness in any part of the respiratory system while others infect specific areas. Sometimes complications such as bacterial disease may occur as a result of viral respiratory infections. Children are especially at risk for complications but adults are also affected significantly. For instance, there are large numbers of adults who require time away from work due to illness. This may result in loss of income for them.

It is possible to recognize several respiratory tract infections as specific diseases because of the way they occur. For example, most influenza infections occur during winter and exhibit a certain group of symptoms. Of bacterial infections that affect the upper respiratory tract, Group A streptococcus is the most common cause. It is important to separate viral infections from bacterial infections so that appropriate treatment can be provided.

Prevention of respiratory tract infections:

  • Handwashing: Basic hygiene practices offer the best protection against infection. It is very important that everyone always wash their hands before putting anything in their mouth. Wash hands before eating, after going to the bathroom, after coughing or sneezing and when they are visibly soiled. Ordinary soap and water is enough to get rid of germs. It is not necessary to use antimicrobial soaps for routine handwashing. Rub hands together well and use friction to remove germs on the surface of hands.
  • Cover your mouth: Germs are easily transmitted through the air with a cough or sneeze. Use a tissue to catch a cough or sneeze before it leaves your mouth. Remember to always wash your hands afterwards.
  • Nutrition: Include fresh fruits and vegetables in your daily diet, along with plenty of fluids such as water or other healthy drinks. Do not share food or drinks with others. Germs from the nose, mouth and hands can also be easily passed along to others through eating and drinking utensils.
  • Rest and exercise: Some research suggests that an active social lifestyle could help reduce stress hormones and possibly reduce infections. It is important to maintain a balance of adequate rest and exercise to stay healthy. Get enough sleep and participate fully in activities according to your physical and emotional ability.

Daycare centres and parental smoking increase the rate of respiratory infections. Keep young children away from other children or adults with colds e.g. daycare or church nurseries. Avoid smoking around children at all times.

Colds:A cold or upper respiratory infection is a viral infection of the nose and throat. It is caused by direct contact with someone who is already infected with a cold. There are up to 200 viruses that can cause colds. With repeated exposure it is possible to develop some immunity over time. Infants may have a cold every one or two months before the immune system matures. Most healthy children get at least six colds each year. Frequent colds in children are generally not a concern unless they increase in severity or frequency.

A cold has to run its course and nothing can shorten how long it lasts. Some over-the-counter drugs may be helpful in managing some of the symptoms. Fever is usually gone within three days and other upper respiratory symptoms disappear in a week. A cough may persist for two to three weeks.

Complications from colds (e.g. ear infections or even pneumonia) are most common in children under 12 months old. Infants especially may have difficulty breathing and sucking at the same time, leading to dehydration. Young children also have smaller airways, which make them more susceptible than older children or adults. Infections slowly lessen as they grow and by about school age the rate is similar to that in adults.

InfluenzaInfluenza or “flu” is another viral respiratory tract infection. Typically, a national flu epidemic in Canada is anticipated each year between October and March. Symptoms are more severe and complications can also be more severe than with other viruses such as colds. Those at highest risk of severe complications of flu include the very young, the elderly and those with certain chronic medical conditions that may affect the immune response.

Influenza is usually identified by the presence of a specific group of symptoms. These can include a severe cough (new or increased), fever, headache, sore throat, severe muscle aches, joint pain, and a complete lack of energy. Medical examination may include taking a swab through the nostril to test for the presence of influenza virus.

Flu is generally self limiting and not serious. However, some estimates show that about 1% of people with flu require hospitalization. The most serious complication of flu is pneumonia. In susceptible individuals it generally occurs about five days after the start of flu-like symptoms. Pneumococcal vaccine can offer added protection for high-risk individuals who are prone to these infections.

The best way to prevent flu is to get a flu shot every fall, usually in October. The virus changes slightly every year so it is necessary to receive vaccination yearly to remain protected. The ongoing need to watch for SARS makes it even more important for us to get our flu shot. Flu symptoms, such as high temperature, can be easily confused with those of SARS. Immunizing people against influenza will drastically reduce the number of cases of that illness, making it easier for doctors to detect SARS, should it re-emerge.

Some studies found that improving vaccination rates in individuals results in a healthier community overall. Vaccination can provide 70% to 100% protection against flu when the virus and vaccine are well matched. Vaccines may be slightly less effective in people with weakened immune responses than in healthy young adults. They are given by injection into a muscle, typically in the arm.

Vaccine is not recommended for people who are severely allergic to eggs or to thimerosal. Thimerosal is a preservative in the vaccine that is sometimes found in contact lens solution. It is impossible to get flu from vaccination because vaccine is not made from live virus. In very few cases people experience mild flu-like symptoms within the first 24 hours after vaccination. Occasionally redness and tenderness at the injection site may also occur. Other side effects include mild fatigue and muscle aches and pains. Symptoms generally occur between six and 12 hours after the vaccination and are gone within 48 hours.