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Understanding Respiratory Illnesses

Woman with a respiratory illness

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Respiratory illnesses can make you very sick.

Some respiratory illnesses are not serious.

  • A cold may make you feel sick for a few days, but you will get better.

Other respiratory illnesses can be very serious.

  • Pneumonia may need to be treated in the hospital, and can even lead to death.

Respiratory illnesses affect the parts of your body that you use to breathe.

Respiratory illnesses affect your:

  • Nose
  • Throat
  • Bronchial tubes (that bring air to your lungs)
  • Lungs

Respiratory illnesses are very common.

Most adults experience at least one or two minor respiratory illnesses each year.

Some of the most common respiratory illnesses include:

  • The common cold
  • Influenza (flu)
  • Bronchitis
  • Pneumonia

You have a greater chance of experiencing respiratory illnesses if you:

  • Smoke cigarettes or pipes
  • Are an older adult or a young child
  • Live where air is polluted or smoky.

Respiratory illnesses are often contagious.

This means that they can spread from person to person.

If someone you spend time with has a respiratory illness, you could catch the illness from them.

People with developmental disabilities may be at greater risk for respiratory illnesses.

You may have increased contact with people who carry respiratory illnesses if:

  • You live in a home with other people who may have respiratory illnesses
  • Your support staff helps many people

You may have a health condition that makes you especially vulnerable.

  • For example, asthma, or Down Syndrome.

It can be hard to tell what type of respiratory illness you have.

The signs and symptoms of different respiratory illnesses can be similar.

You may feel sick, but not know whether you have a cold, flu, bronchitis, or pneumonia.

Here are some tips to help you know what to do!

Colds are a very common, minor respiratory illness.

Almost everyone has had a cold at some time in their life.

  • Many people get a cold every year.

If you have a cold, you will probably:

  • Feel tired
  • Sneeze a lot
  • Have a runny nose and sore throat

Influenza (or flu) is another very common respiratory illness you have probably experienced.

If you have flu you will probably have:

  • A fever
  • Body aches
  • A headache
  • A cough
  • A sore throat

If you think you have a cold or flu, tell someone.

Tell a family member or your support provider when you feel sick.

If you do not get better after a few days, you can call your doctor for advice.

  • Your doctor may want you to come in for a visit.
  • Or, your doctor may give you tips to help you feel better.

You can help yourself to feel better!

If you have a cold or the flu, you can take care of yourself by:

  • Getting extra rest and sleep
  • Drinking lots of liquids like juice, tea, water, or soup

You can also take an over-the-counter pain reliever or cough suppressant.

  • Ask your doctor if taking these medications will interfere with your current medications.

Bronchitis can be a more serious kind of respiratory illness.

Bronchitis is a disease that affects your bronchial tubes.

  • These are the tubes that carry air to your lungs.

Bronchitis causes your bronchial tubes to become inflamed.

If you have bronchitis, you may have these symptoms:

  • A cough that may bring up mucus
  • A mild fever
  • A general feeling of tiredness
  • A pain in the chest when you try to breathe deeply
  • Feeling short of breath

If you have bronchitis, you may feel sick for two or three weeks.

Tell a support provider, family member, or doctor what you feel.

If your bronchitis is not getting better after a week, or if it is getting worse, you may need to see a doctor.

  • Worsening bronchitis may be a sign that you are developing pneumonia.

You can make yourself feel better by:

  • Drinking plenty of juice and water
  • Making time for extra sleep and rest
  • Cutting back on smoking, if you smoke
  • Breathing in moist air from a humidifier, a hot shower, or sink filled with hot water
  • Using over-the-counter cough drops or sore throat lozenges if your doctor approves

Pneumonia is one of the most serious respiratory illnesses.

  • Pneumonia is an infection of your lungs.
  • Most people who get pneumonia get better within a few weeks.
  • Sometimes pneumonia can lead to death.
  • This is especially true for older people and those with other health concerns.

If you have pneumonia, you may have these symptoms:

  • A cough that brings up mucus that may have blood in it
  • Shaking or chills
  • A fever
  • Fast breathing or feeling short of breath
  • Chest pain that feels worse when you cough or breathe in
  • Feeling very tired and weak

If you have symptoms of pneumonia, call your doctor right away.

The faster you get treatment for your pneumonia, the faster you will get better.

If your pneumonia is being caused by a bacteria, the doctor will treat you with antibiotics.

You can lower your chances of developing a respiratory illness.

Ask your health care provider about getting a flu vaccine.

Wash your hands frequently with soap and warm water, especially if you are spending time around people with colds or other illnesses.

Keep your hands away from your nose, eyes, and mouth.

More ways to help prevent respiratory illnesses:

If you smoke, stop smoking

Stay indoors with the doors and windows closed if air pollution is at a high level

Eat a healthy and well-balanced diet

Get plenty of sleep and rest every day

If you have a respiratory illness, you can help prevent others from getting sick.

If you are sick, make sure to:

  • Turn away from other people when you sneeze or cough
  • Cover your mouth when you sneeze or cough
  • Avoid spending time around people who are more likely to get sick, like small children and older adults
  • Wash your hands frequently

If you have questions about respiratory illnesses, talk to your doctor!

By understanding the signs and symptoms of respiratory illnesses, how to take care of yourself, and strategies for prevention, you can stay safe and healthy!

To learn more about the cold and flu:

Check out these DDS Safety Net presentations:

To learn more about bronchitis:

Check out these websites:

  • Web MD: Bronchitis
  • Acute Bronchitis
Attachment Size
FPRespiratoryIllness.pdf 1.1 MB
Last updated on Mon, 06/14/2010 - 11:05