Chronic Respiratory Infection

Chronic Respiratory Infection

Respiratory infections occur in the chest, the sinuses, the nose, and/or the throat. They spread fairly easily, especially in the cooler seasons when people are indoors and closer together.

Respiratory infections are fairly common among people of all ages. The definition on when a respiratory infection is termed ‘chronic’ depends on the location of the infection.  For example, a sinus infection is chronic when it lasts 12 or more weeks. Chronic bronchitis is when an individual has a productive cough (usually purulent sputum [thick yellow or green phlegm]) for 3 consecutive months occurring over the span of 2 or more yrs.   


Common symptoms of respiratory infections include shortness of breath, sore throat, overproduction of mucus, fever, postnasal drip, cough, and bad breath.

These illnesses are categorized as upper respiratory tract infections and lower respiratory tract infections. Upper respiratory tract infections generally involve the throat, nasal cavity, sinuses and inner ears and include colds, strep throat, viral pharyngitis, otitis media, and sinus infections. Lower respiratory tract infections tend to be more serious and last a bit longer, affecting patients’ airways and lungs. Typical of these infections are pneumonia, bronchitis, and croup.

Causes and Risk Factors

Common chronic respiratory infections and conditions include:

  • Chronic bronchitis, an ongoing inflammation of the bronchial tubes, which are critical to our effort to breathe. It is most often caused by cigarette smoking.
  • Chronic sinusitis, inflammation occurring in the nasal passages or in the sinuses for more than twelve weeks.
  • Bronchiectasis. Patients suffer from damage to their lungs that prevents them from clearing mucus properly. This causes bacteria to grow, which can lead to more lung damage.

What makes a person more vulnerable to chronic respiratory infection?

  • Cigarette smoke, and secondhand smoke.
  • Airborne irritants like pollen.
  • Stress, lack of sleep and contact with people who have infections.
  • Other conditions, such as asthma, cystic fibrosis, and COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder).
  • Structural problems such as a deviated septum, which narrows one of the nasal passages, and nasal polyps, which are small growths in the nasal passages. These physical changes may lead to sinus infections.
  • A tendency to aspirate, or breathe into the lungs, liquids or food particles.
  • A deficient immune system. Someone might have been born with or developed a defect of their immune system such as low and/or poorly functioning antibodies, complement deficiency, or deficient or poorly functioning white blood cells or their immune system might be compromised because they are recovering from a surgery or have undergone chemotherapy. HIV infection and poorly controlled diabetes are other reasons of having a poorly functioning immune system. These immunodeficiencies may result in a chronic respiratory infection.

When to See a Doctor

Respiratory infections usually run their course within a week or two, with proper care. If you have infections that last longer than three weeks, or get infections frequently, check with your doctor.

Exercise extra caution if you are pregnant, over 65, coughing up blood, or also have cancer, diabetes or a heart, lung, or kidney condition.

Additional radiology tests may be needed to help with the diagnosis, such as sinus cat scans, chest xrays and/or chest cat scans.

Prevention and Treatment

To prevent a chronic respiratory infection, try to avoid being around sick people. Wash your hands as often as you can. Be sure to cover your mouth when you sneeze or cough. Get flu vaccines and talk to your doctor about other vaccines that might be helpful.

Treatment will depend on the type of infection. Doctors might prescribe antibacterial medication, inhalers, nasal steroids, nasal saline mist/rinse and/or oral steroids.  Patients also might be given an airway clearing device or receive instruction on techniques for coughing that can clear out mucus. Smokers will be directed to quit, and nonsmokers will be encouraged to avoid secondhand smoke.

Get Relief from Chronic Respiratory Infection

If you suspect that you have a chronic respiratory infection, visit a doctor at Florida Medical Clinic’s Department of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. Our allergy and immunology specialists will evaluate your medical history and conduct various tests to determine what could be triggering your symptoms.

Click here to schedule an appointment.

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