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Respiratory tract infections (RTIs) are any infection of the sinuses, throat, airways or lungs.
They're usually caused by viruses, but they can also be caused by bacteria.
Respiratory tract infections are believed to be one of the main reasons why people visit their doctor or pharmacist. The most widespread respiratory tract infection is the common cold.
Health professionals generally make a distinction between:
Children tend to get more upper RTIs than adults because they have not yet built up immunity (resistance) to the many viruses that can cause these infections.
RTIs can spread in several ways. If you have an infection such as a cold, tiny droplets of fluid containing the cold virus are launched into the air whenever you sneeze or cough. If these are breathed in by someone else, they may also become infected.
Infections can also be spread through indirect contact. For example, if you have a cold and you touch your nose or eyes before touching an object or surface, the virus may be passed to someone else when they touch that object or surface.
The best way to prevent the spread of infection is to practice good hygiene, such as regularly washing your hands with soap and warm water.
Common upper respiratory tract infections include:
A cough](https://www.your.md/condition/cough) is the most common symptom of an upper RTI. Other symptoms include [headaches, a stuffy or runny nose, a sore throat, sneezing and muscle aches.
Common lower RTIs include:
The main symptom of a lower RTI is also a cough, although it is usually more severe and you may bring up phlegm and mucus. Other possible symptoms are a tight feeling in your chest, increased rate of breathing, breathlessness and wheezing.
Most RTIs will pass without the need for treatment and you usually won't need to see your doctor. You can treat your symptoms at home by taking over-the-counter painkillers such as paracetamol or ibuprofen, drinking plenty of fluids and resting.
Antibiotics are not recommended for most RTIs because they are only effective if the infection is caused by bacteria.
The symptoms of an upper RTI usually pass within one to two weeks.
It's recommended you visit your doctor if:
It's also recommended you visit your doctor if you are 65 or over and have at least two of the factors listed below, or you are 80 or over and have one of the factors listed below:
You can also ask your doctor about any vaccines you can have to help protect against some RTIs. See the vaccinations guide for more information about these.
Important: Our website provides useful information but is not a substitute for medical advice. You should always seek the advice of your doctor when making decisions about your health.