Your Guide to Respiratory Infections

November 20, 2023

Respiratory Infection Prevention and Treatment

It’s winter. The weather’s cold, and that means one thing: It’s cold and flu season. Many respiratory viruses thrive when the weather is cold.

While everyone’s goal is to avoid getting sick, it’s impossible to completely eliminate the risk of getting infected with a respiratory virus, though there are things that you can do to reduce it.

If you find yourself feeling unwell this winter, read on to see how to take care of yourself at home, when to contact a medical professional, and what additional treatment options are available.

What Causes Respiratory Infections?

Respiratory infections can affect any body parts involved in breathing, including the sinuses, throat and lungs. Most of these infections are caused by viruses and they include some of the most common conditions in the world. But they can also be more serious.

Examples of respiratory infections are:


  • Cold
  • Flu (also known formally as influenza)
  • COVID-19
  • RSV (Respiratory Syncytial Virus)

Bacteria (Most Commonly)

  • Pneumonia
  • Bronchitis
  • Sinusitis

Preventing Respiratory Infections

Prevention is the best form of treatment, and you can prevent a respiratory infection by practicing good hygiene.

The viruses that cause respiratory infections are usually transmitted through droplets, so the best form of prevention is getting vaccinated for infections that have a vaccine is available. (These include influenza, COVID-19, pneumococcal pneumonia and RSV, if you are eligible and your healthcare provider recommends it).

Wearing a mask is also very effective, especially when in a crowded place with poor ventilation, caring for someone who’s sick, or if you’ve been exposed to someone with a viral infection.

It’s important to stay home if you’re sick. You should also take a home COVID-19 test, even if you have only one mild symptom, to help reduce the chance of spreading the infection. If you know someone who recently had an infection (or they’re showing symptoms), do your best to keep your distance until they recover. It’s important to cover your coughs and sneezes with your elbow or a tissue and to clean your hands with alcohol-based hand sanitizer or soap and water as much as possible. 

Treatment Options for Respiratory Infections

Even if you follow these prevention practices, there’s still a chance you may get sick. Here’s what you should do if you think you’ve come down with a respiratory infection:

At-Home Treatment

Most mild respiratory infections can be treated with an at-home care routine. However, people with certain medical conditions and those who are older/younger may be at higher risk of complications. If you fall into either category, you should check with their health care provider to see if testing or treatment is indicated.

For most people, general steps you should take when you’re sick include:

  • Get plenty of rest: Sleep is how your immune system attacks viruses when you’re sick. Resting when you feel under the weather  napping, sleeping longer, taking time off from work  can give your body the energy it needs to recover.
  • Drink lots of fluids: Your body uses more fluids than usual when fighting off an illness, so it’s important you’re replenishing by drinking plenty of water.
  • Take over-the-counter pain relievers: Fever, sore throat and muscle aches aren’t pleasant. While your body works to fight off the infection, an over-the-counter pain reliever (such as Tylenol) can help you manage your symptoms.

Visiting Your Doctor

You don’t always have to go to the doctor if you have a respiratory infection. But if you have specific medical conditions, or are of older or very young age that puts you at higher risk of complications or any of the following symptoms, you should contact a medical professional:

  • Fever over 102 degrees for more than three days
  • Feeling worse instead of better, especially after 10 days
  • Difficulty breathing, shortness of breath or wheezing
  • Feeling pain or pressure in your chest
  • Have a sore throat for more than a week
  • Having a pulse oximeter reading less than 92%
  • Having a positive home test for COVID-19

Recovering From a Respiratory Infection

If your treatment plan is working, you should start to see your symptoms start to improve after a few days. While individual recovery times will vary, most respiratory infections pass within 7 to 14 days. You should continue to wear a mask around others until your symptoms have fully resolved. You may still be contagious, even as you start to feel better.

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