This is because respiratory infections can be triggered by a trivial cold but can also be the first symptom of something else, and it is good to have some information about this.

Risks of transmission of a respiratory infection

The common cold is the most common cause of doctor visits in the United States.

URIs (Upper Respiratory Infections) spread from one person to another through airborne germs and hand-to-hand contact with another person’s nose. (OnHealth 2020)

In these situations, the risk is greater:

  • A sick person coughs or sneezes without covering their nose and mouth and the germs spread through the air and can end up on a person in close contact.
  • Close contact in densely populated areas such as schools, kindergartens and hospitals.

The nose and eyes are open portals to our bodies and infection occurs when we touch these areas with our hands encountering cold germs

Touching common objects such as doorknobs, keyboards, office machines, toys.

Viruses can live on these objects

  • During the cold months, when people tend to stay indoors
  • Low-humidity environments, such as homes with heating systems.
  • If a person has a weakened immune system due to a chronic health condition

(Witherspoon 2020)


Types of respiratory infections

There is a difference between an upper respiratory tract infection and a lower respiratory tract infection.

Upper respiratory tract infections affect the head and involve the sinuses, nose and throat.

Lower respiratory tract infections involve the airways and lungs.

There are several respiratory infections of which we need to be aware:

Whooping cough (pertussis)

Whooping cough (pertussis) is a highly contagious respiratory tract infection. In many people, it is characterised by a loud, hacking cough followed by a sharp breath that sounds like a whoop. (Mayo Clinic 2019)

Swine flu

Swine influenza viruses do not normally infect humans.

However, sporadic human infections have occurred with influenza viruses that normally circulate in pigs and not in people.

When this happens, these viruses are called ‘variant viruses’.

They can also be indicated by adding the letter ‘v’ to the end of the virus subtype designation.

Bird flu (H5N1 avian influenza)

Avian influenza is the disease caused by infection with type A avian influenza viruses.

These viruses occur naturally among wild waterfowl worldwide and can infect domestic poultry and other bird and animal species.

Avian influenza viruses do not normally infect humans; however, sporadic human infections with avian influenza viruses have occurred. (CDC 2019)


Enteroviruses of various types cause about 10-15 million infections each year in the United States alone, usually in late summer or early autumn.

The symptoms are similar to those of the common cold.

The vast majority of children with enteroviruses, such as EV-D68, have mild symptoms and do not require medical treatment beyond that of the common cold.

Enteroviruses can cause severe respiratory problems.

Infants, children with asthma and those with weak immune systems are more likely to have respiratory problems and complications, which in some cases require treatment in intensive care. (Healthy Kids 2019)


Influenza is a contagious respiratory disease caused by influenza viruses that infect the nose, throat and sometimes the lungs. It can cause mild to severe illness and can sometimes lead to death.

The best way to prevent influenza is to get the flu vaccine every year. (CDC 2019)

Bacterial pneumonia

Bacterial pneumonia is an infection of the lungs caused by certain bacteria.

The most common is Streptococcus (pneumococcus), but other bacteria can also cause it.

If one is young and basically healthy, these bacteria can live in the throat without causing problems.

But if the body’s defences (immune system) weaken for some reason, the bacteria can descend into the lungs.

When this happens, the air sacs in the lungs become infected and inflamed. They fill with fluid and this causes pneumonia. (Web MD 2018)

Viral pneumonia

Viral pneumonia is an infection of the lungs caused by a virus.

The most common cause is influenza, but viral pneumonia can also be caused by the common cold and other viruses.

These harmful germs usually attach themselves to the upper part of the respiratory system.

But the problems start when they descend into the lungs. The air sacs in the lungs become infected and inflamed, filling with fluid.

Anything that weakens the body’s defences (immune system) can increase the chances of contracting pneumonia. (Web MD 2018)


Bronchitis is an inflammation of the lining of the bronchi, which carry air to and from the lungs.

People with bronchitis often cough up thickened mucus, which may be discoloured.

Bronchitis can be acute or chronic and often develops due to a cold or other respiratory infection or acute bronchitis, which is very common.

Chronic bronchitis, a more serious condition, is a constant irritation or inflammation of the lining of the bronchi, often due to smoking.

Acute bronchitis, also known as chest cold, usually improves within a week to 10 days with no lasting effects, although the cough may persist for weeks. (Mayo Foundation 2017)

Common cold (head cold)

Common colds are the main reason why children miss school and adults miss work.

There are millions of cases of the common cold in the US every year.

Adults have an average of 2-3 colds per year and children even more.

Most people get sick in the winter and spring, but it is possible to get sick at any time of the year. (CDC 2019)

Coronavirus infections

Covid is still circulating. Fortunately, in an attenuated form, and in largely vaccinated populations, which adequately mitigates its alarm.

Common signs of infection include respiratory symptoms, fever, cough, shortness of breath and difficulty breathing.

In severe cases, the infection can cause pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure and even death.

Standard recommendations to prevent the spread of the infection include regular hand washing, covering the mouth and nose when coughing and sneezing, and careful cooking of meat and eggs.

Avoid close contact with anyone showing symptoms of respiratory illness such as coughing and sneezing (WHO 2019).

MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome)

Most people with confirmed MERS-CoV infection have experienced severe respiratory illness with symptoms of:

  • fever
  • cough
  • shortness of breath

Some people also experienced diarrhoea and nausea/vomiting.

For many people with MERS, more serious complications followed, such as pneumonia and kidney failure.

About 3 to 4 out of 10 people who contracted MERS died.

Most of the people who died had a pre-existing medical condition that had weakened their immune system, or an underlying medical condition that has not yet been discovered.

Medical conditions sometimes weaken people’s immune systems and make them more prone to get sick or have serious illnesses. (CDC 2019)


The right protocol for respiratory diseases

As we navigate the world of healthcare, we try to share important information with our families.

It is very likely that a cold in a healthy person does not become critical.

We all have family members who are young, elderly or have complicated illnesses.

In this case, we must remain vigilant and seek emergency medical attention when the symptoms appear to be more than a simple sneeze or cough.

It is on the frail that we must cast a closer eye.

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