Often, upper and lower respiratory infections are mistaken to be the same. However, they are different, based on the location of the infection. If the infection is caused in the upper respiratory tract, it is known as upper RTI and the organs that are infected in upper respiratory tract infection are nose, mouth, larynx or the voice box, windpipe or trachea as well as sinus. In case of the lower respiratory tract infection, the lungs and the bronchial tubes are infected.
Although in case of upper respiratory tract infection, the infections are always caused by virus and bacteria that are contagious, in case of lower respiratory tract infection, along with virus and bacteria, physical substances may also be the cause of the infection. Pneumonia is one such type of lower respiratory tract infection. Though it is referred to a lower respiratory tract infection, pneumonia can actually be referred to any type of inflammation caused to the lungs. When the alveoli or the air sacs of the lungs are filled with fluid and causes inflammation, for any reason whatsoever, the condition is referred to as pneumonia.
Upper Respiratory Tract Infection Vs. Pneumonia: Differences Based on Causes
As already mentioned upper respiratory tract infections are caused by virus and bacteria and are highly contagious. They are commonly referred to as “cold” and since they are contagious, it is referred as you ‘catch cold’. You get them from an already infected person by coming in close contact with them. Even if you do not have a direct contact with an infected person, you still may get infections indirectly as these virus and bacteria are highly communicable and transferred.
Pneumonia on the other hand, though also caused by virus and bacteria, is not contagious. The bacteria that lead to pneumonia are commonly Streptococcus pneumoniae. However, gram positive and gram negative bacteria can also cause pneumonia. Along with these, pneumonia can also be caused if you are exposed to and inhale toxic fumes or consume irritants through foods and drinks. Upper respiratory tract infections can never occur by being exposed to toxic fumes or irritants.
Upper Respiratory Tract Infection Vs. Pneumonia: Differences Based on Symptoms
Usually, the initial signs and symptoms of lower respiratory tract infections are similar to that of upper respiratory tract infections. Therefore, if you have pneumonia or bronchitis or other lower respiratory tract infection, it might be difficult for you to determine the exact cause of the condition. However, of course, in most cases, the signs and symptoms of common cold or sore throat or sinusitis or tonsillitis are less severe than the signs and symptoms of bronchitis and pneumonia.
Symptoms of Upper Respiratory Tract Infection:
- Runny nose is the most common sign of any upper respiratory tract infection or common cold infection
- Congestion in nose and head
- Coughing with mucus production
- Sore throat
- Hoarse voice
- Pain in ear
- Difficulty in breathing due to congestion in the nose.
Symptoms of Pneumonia:
Like any other lower respiratory tract infection, the signs and symptoms of pneumonia are –
- Production of sputum that can be white, yellowish green or yellowish grey or even clear in colour
- Pain in chest
- Discomfort in chest
- Retraction in the chest wall
- Abnormal breathing sound
- Cyanosis or discolouration of the skin
- Abnormal and rapid breathing known as tachypnea
- Difficulty sleeping because of the nagging and continuous coughing.
The signs and symptoms of upper respiratory tract infection usually go within a few days or weeks. However, signs and symptoms of lower respiratory tract infection, especially those of pneumonia stay for long – sometimes for up to months. If it lasts for more than 3 weeks and if you get no relief after coughing or throwing up sputum, you probably have pneumonia. Sometimes the coughs do not produce sputum and sometimes they do; at times the sputum may also have blood stains. The lower respiratory tract infection being difficult to access with regards to the location is, hence, difficult to treat as well. In fact, if it is not treated on time, it can cause serious harm to your health.
Upper Respiratory Tract Infection Vs. Pneumonia: Differences Based on Treatment
While upper respiratory tract infections can be treated with antibiotics, lower respiratory tract infections are difficult to be treated by antibiotics. The doctor will prescribe other medicines and treatment methods to reduce the inflammation. You may also need some serious lifestyle changes in order to get well. So, see a doctor if you find your symptoms similar to those of pneumonia before it is too late.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021). Pneumonia. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/pneumonia/index.html
- Cleveland Clinic. (2021). Upper Respiratory Infection (URI) or Common Cold. Retrieved from https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/15224-upper-respiratory-infection-uri-or-common-cold
- What is Upper Respiratory Tract Infection: Causes, Symptoms
- Diagnosis, Treatment of Upper Respiratory Tract Infection & its Prevention
- Causes & Symptoms of Lower Respiratory Tract Infection
- Can You Get Pneumonia from a Sinus Infection?
- Difference Between Upper Respiratory Tract Infection and Bronchitis