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What are coughs, colds and RTIs? What are the symptoms? And what can you do to prevent you and your family catching them?

What are RTIs?

Respiratory tract infections or RTIs are any illnesses that affect the sinuses, throat, airways or lungs. These can range from the common cold or a chesty cough to a more severe condition, such as pneumonia. RTIs are highly contagious and can spread quickly.
Different kinds of coughs and colds.

There are two main types of coughs and colds:

1. Upper respiratory tract infections which affect the nose, sinuses and throat. These types of infections include:

• the common cold
• sinusitis
• laryngitis
• flu
• tonsillitis.

These are generally less severe than lower respiratory tract infections and symptoms include a cough (the most common symptom), headaches, blocked or runny nose, sneezing, aching muscles, and a sore throat.

2. Lower respiratory tract infections affect the airways and lungs. These types of infections include:

• flu
• bronchitis
• pneumonia
• bronchiolitis
• tuberculosis.

Symptoms can include: a cough that is generally more severe, bringing up phlegm or mucus when coughing, tightness in the chest, rapid breathing, breathlessness or wheezing.


How do we catch coughs and colds?

Coughs, colds and RTIs are spread through direct or indirect exposure to viruses and bacteria.

Direct exposure is a result of viruses and bacteria travelling from an infected person to someone else. When an infected person sneezes, tiny droplets of infected fluid travel through the air to be easily breathed in without realising. That’s why it’s recommended that we cover our mouths when we sneeze or cough.

Indirect exposure occurs when an unwell person passes on their germs by touching something that someone else then touches. The other person will pick up the germs – usually on their hands –and then ingest them by touching their mouth or food and drink.

How can I protect myself from catching a cold or RTI?

There is no guaranteed way to prevent catching a cold or other RTI, but there are several ways you can protect yourself and your family:

• Wash your hands regularly with soap and clean water. Read more about handwashing techniques 
• Use tissues to cover your mouth when you sneeze or cough. These will stop any germs spreading. It’s a good idea always to do this even if you’re not feeling ill, as you may have an infection without realising it.
• Wash your hands after blowing your nose or covering your mouth to cough or sneeze. This helps get rid of any bacteria on your hands.
• Eat a balanced and healthy diet. This means lots of vitamin-rich fruits and vegetables. They’ll help your body fight off infections.

How can I make myself better?

Your body should be able to fight off most coughs and colds in roughly 1-2 weeks. Drink plenty of clean water and try to keep your strength up by eating lots of healthy foods.
Paracetamol and ibuprofen can help manage the symptoms. You will find that the symptoms pass within 1-2 weeks.
If you find yourself becoming worse or the symptoms carry on after two weeks, contact your doctor for advice. But if you have any pre-existing heart, lung, liver, kidney conditions or cystic fibrosis, see your doctor as soon as you notice symptoms.

4 quick tips to beat coughs and colds

1. Wash your hands: read more about handwashing techniques.
2. Use tissues: cover your mouth with a tissue when you sneeze and then throw it in the bin to make sure you limit the potential of others becoming exposed.
3. Replenish your natural defences: try to eat vitamin-rich fruit and vegetables to make sure your body has the strength to attack invading viruses.
4. Use a hand gel: in between washes

Myths about the common cold

Myth: Feed a cold, starve a fever.
Fact: Your body needs the calories and fluids to help it fight the infection.

Myth: Going out in the cold makes you ill.
Fact: The common cold is a virus. You can catch it inside in the warm as well as outside in the cold.

Myth: Wearing garlic prevents colds.
Fact: Eating garlic can help boost your immunity and strengthen your body’s resistance to viruses.