What You Should Know About Upper Respiratory Disorders

By Stephanie Watson @WatsonWriter
November 09, 2015

Before you ask the doctor for antibiotics, learn what really causes most upper respiratory conditions.

Are you sneezing, sniffling, nursing a sore throat, and mopping up a runny nose? Your symptoms could be due to an infection of the upper respiratory tract, which encompasses the nose, sinuses, throat, and voice box. Though doctors often dispense antibiotic prescriptions to treat these infections, viruses are actually to blame for most of them, rendering antibiotics ineffective.

What kind of respiratory disorder do you really have, and how should you treat it? Here’s a guide to the infections that could be bugging you.


The “common” cold is aptly named because it is one of our most common afflictions. Adults come down with two to four bouts of this viral illness each year, and kids catch up to eight colds annually. Colds might seem like an everyday illness, but they can develop into bronchitis and other, more serious infections — especially in vulnerable populations such as the elderly and children. A cold can also exacerbate chronic conditions like asthma.

“We generally think of colds as a nuisance, but they can be debilitating in the very young and in older individuals, and can trigger asthma attacks at any age,” says Stephen B. Liggett, MD, professor of medicine and physiology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

The numerous virus strains that cause colds — more than 100 in all — make this a hard illness to treat with a one-size-fits-all medicine. Our best option is to stifle symptoms with over-the-counter pain relievers, decongestant pills, and nasal sprays. But Liggett and other researchers are delving into the genetic makeup of cold virus strains in the hope of one day developing more targeted drugs that treat the disease itself.


Pain around your eyes and nose, a stuffed nose that doesn’t open up, and thick yellow or green discharge from your nose could be signs you’ve developed sinusitis. This infection affects the sinuses — the hollow area behind your nose and eyes. Doctors often prescribe antibiotics for sinus infections. “However, if the infection turns out to be viral — as most are — the antibiotics won’t help and in fact can cause harm by increasing antibiotic resistance, exposing patients to drug side effects unnecessarily and adding cost,” says Anthony W. Chow, MD, professor emeritus of infectious diseases at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver.

Instead, experts recommend easing symptoms with a nasal steroid spray or rinse, and an over-the-counter pain reliever. If you’re running a fever, your symptoms don’t improve after 10 days, or you’ve had nasal discharge and facial pain for more than three days, you might have bacterial sinusitis. In that case, you will need antibiotics to clear up the infection.


Pharyngitis — more familiar to most of us as a sore throat — also gets treated with antibiotics much of the time. Up to 70 percent of people who see their doctor for an irritated throat walk out with a prescription. Yet viruses cause most sore throats, according to the Infectious Diseases Society of America.

To soothe a sore throat, gargle with warm salt water, take an over-the-counter pain reliever, and drink plenty of water. The cold or other infection that caused it should ease up in a few days. If the soreness doesn’t go away after several days, check with your doctor to see if you do need an antibiotic.


The tonsils are two round lumps of tissue at the back of the throat, on either side of the throat. Just about every kid knows what the tonsils are because they often swell up with bacteria or viruses during strep throat or other infections. When a virus causes tonsillitis, the best advice is to rest, drink plenty of fluids, and suck on a lozenge or take an over-the-counter pain relieve to ease discomfort. Bacterial tonsillitis should respond to antibiotics.


You might call it a “frog in your throat” or say, “I’ve lost my voice,” but what you’re really talking about is laryngitis. This inflammation of the voice box (larynx) can be caused by an infection, although you can also contribute to inflammation by talking or singing too much. If you come down with laryngitis, rest your voice. Suck on throat lozenges, drink lots of water, and use a humidifier to add moisture until your voice returns. 


November 09, 2015

Reviewed By:

Janet O’Dell, RN

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