The respiratory tract is a part of the respiratory system which helps with the process of respiration. It is divided into an upper and lower respiratory tract. The upper respiratory tract includes structures such as the nose, nasal cavity, mouth, throat (pharynx), and voice box (larynx). The lower respiratory tract includes structures such as windpipe (trachea), the lungs and the structures within it such as bronchi, bronchioles and alveoli.
Upper respiratory tract infections also known as ‘common cold’ is very common in children. It is one of the leading causes of children’s hospital visits and the reason for absenteeism from school.
Research shows that, on the average, children are infected with about two to eight upper respiratory tract infections annually in the first two years after birth. Those that attend daycare would have as many as 14 annually. Older children may also experience about three to six infections annually.
What are the Causes?
Upper respiratory tract infections are caused by several families of virus. These include: rhinovirus, coronavirus, parainfluenza, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), adenovirus, human metapneumovirus and influenza. However, in some cases, there may be a secondary bacterial infection.
Upper respiratory tract infections are highly contagious and a child becomes infected when he or she comes into contact with nasal secretions from an infected person. When the child touches their eyes or nose, the virus gains entry and results in a new infection. Infection could also be spread through air containing droplets sneezed or coughed by an infected person.
Children are more likely to spread the infection to others. The possibility of transmission is increased especially when children are gathered together such as in school. The idea that children are more likely to get a cold when they get chilled, wet or tired does not hold, as these factors do not make them more susceptible to an infection.
Symptoms to Look out for
Symptoms of an upper respiratory tract infection would normally affect the nose and throat. When the viruses enter the body, they cause inflammation and mucus production which leads to the following symptoms:
- Nasal congestion,
- Runny nose,
- Itchy throat and
These symptoms can last up to about 14 days. However, some children will continue to cough even after the infection has resolved. Fever is also common in young children. Headaches, loss of appetite, body aches, lethargy and malaise are also common symptoms associated with a common cold.
Diagnosis & Treatment
Your doctor would evaluate your child and diagnosis can be made based on a history and symptoms.
Blood tests like a full blood count would be done and chest x-ray may also be done in some cases.
Viral respiratory infections are usually self-limiting and treatment is aimed at relieving the symptoms. For viral respiratory infections, antibiotics are not prescribed unless there is a secondary bacterial infections. Children are recommended to have adequate rest and fluid intake. Analgesics like acetaminophen and NSAIDs (Ibuprofen) can be prescribed for fever and aches. Nasal drops or sprays are also recommended for nasal decongestion.
How to Prevent Upper Respiratory Tract Infections in Your Child
Good hygiene is important in preventing the spread of viral infections. A sick child and their caretakers should wash their hands frequently. Intimate physical contact such as hugging and snuggling should as much as possible be balanced with the need to comfort the sick child as this increases the chances of spread of infection.
Children with a viral respiratory infection should stay home from school till most of the symptoms have resolved, like fever and when they are able to feed well. The only viral respiratory infection that can be prevented with a vaccine is Influenza. Children six months or older are all required to receive a yearly vaccination.