Sneezing, coughing, scratchy throat – respiratory symptoms can leave you feeling pretty low. But all respiratory illnesses aren’t the same, even though they attack the same system. There are actually two types of respiratory illnesses – upper and lower infections – that encompass a broad range of causes, symptoms, and treatments. Knowing the difference between them can mean the difference between feeling better and getting worse.

Upper vs. Lower Respiratory Tract

The main difference between upper and lower respiratory illnesses is the location. Your respiratory system is divided into two parts: the upper tract and the lower tract.

The upper respiratory tract includes your nose, mouth, sinuses, pharynx, and larynx. Its primary role is to filter and transport oxygen-rich air into the lungs. The lower respiratory tract includes everything below the larynx: the trachea, bronchial tubes, and lungs. This portion of your respiratory system is responsible for gas exchanges.

Viruses, germs, and bacteria can cause infections that affect the upper respiratory tract, the lower respiratory tract, or both.

Upper Respiratory Illnesses

Upper respiratory infections (URIs) are typically caused by a virus. They are one of the most common infectious illnesses in the world, affecting billions of people every year. Common URIs include colds, sinusitis, tonsillitis, laryngitis, and flu (influenza).

URIs present with a range of symptoms that affect the upper respiratory tract. These can differ from person to person, but frequently include:

  • Sneezing
  • Sore Throat
  • Nasal Congestion or Discharge
  • Headaches
  • Facial Pain
  • Fatigue and/or Malaise

Most URIs are mild and will resolve without treatment within 7-10 days. If symptoms persist for longer than two weeks or become severe, it’s best to visit your doctor for an accurate diagnosis and treatment plan.

Lower Respiratory Illnesses

Lower Respiratory Illnesses (LRIs) are caused by viruses or bacteria that infect your lower respiratory tract. They are typically more serious than upper respiratory infections, especially in vulnerable populations. Common LRIs include pneumonia, bronchitis, bronchiolitis, and the flu (influenza).

Coughing is the primary symptom of lower respiratory infections. Other symptoms include:

  • Increased mucus (phlegm)
  • Fever
  • Chest Pain
  • Shortness of Breath
  • Fatigue
  • Body Aches

LRI symptoms may be severe and can require medication to manage. Treatment depends on the cause of your illness; there is no cure for viral infections, but antibiotics can treat illnesses caused by bacteria, such as pneumonia. Hospitalization may be needed, especially in high-risk patients like the elderly, those with lung conditions like COPD, and patients with compromised immune systems.

There is no “good” respiratory illness, but some infections are tougher than others. Knowing the difference between an upper and a lower respiratory illness can help you determine the proper treatment and watch for potential complications, like trouble breathing. Those with underlying lung conditions should be especially vigilant and take all medications as prescribed; visit us online to learn how our respiratory supply program can deliver them right to your door.