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7 Respiratory Illnesses You Should Know about This Winter

None of us are strangers to respiratory conditions. You or a loved one may have a chronic disease, like asthma. And if not, you’ve certainly had a respiratory infection before. The flu, the common cold, and COVID-19 are all examples of conditions that are infectious, meaning they are caused by germs — usually bacteria or viruses — that can be passed from one person to the next.

In this article, you’ll learn more about 7 chronic and infectious respiratory conditions, some you may be very familiar with and others not so much. Scroll down to learn more about these illnesses, including what they are, how they occur, and potential complications they can cause.

  1. Bronchiectasis

What it is & how it happens: Bronchiectasis is a chronic lung condition just like COPD is, but it’s not the same as COPD.1 When a person has bronchiectasis, their airways become wider and thicker than they should be, and scarred. As a result, extra mucus builds up, and it makes the person’s lungs more likely to become infected.1,2

Bronchiectasis happens when the tissue and muscles around the large lung airways become damaged. This damage may happen as a result of an infection like pneumonia or a weakened immune system.1,2

Common symptoms: A wet cough with yellow or green mucus and shortness of breath are the most common bronchiectasis symptoms. Others include1,2:

  • Fatigue
  • Wheezing
  • Fever with or without chills 
  • Coughing up mucus and blood
  • Chest pain
  • Developing thicker skin under fingernails
  • Frequent lung infections

Potential complications: Just like with COPD, people with bronchiectasis can have flare ups where symptoms, especially shortness of breath, get worse.

Bronchiectasis also leads to a damaging cycle when it comes to infections.3 Because of mucus buildup, people with bronchiectasis are more likely to develop respiratory infections. These infections end up causing even more damage to the airways, which leads to more mucus production. Over time, this cycle causes the lungs to become weaker and the disease to get worse.

Coughing up blood is typically a bad sign for someone with bronchiectasis and could happen if a blood vessel in the lungs breaks open.1 Other potential complications include heart failure and collapsed lungs.3

Although the disease is relatively uncommon, consider asking your primary care doctor about your risk for developing bronchiectasis.

  1. Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)

What it is & how it happens: Unlike many of the other conditions on this list, COPD is a chronic respiratory disease, not an infectious one. COPD causes the airways inside the lungs to become inflamed, which makes it harder for air and oxygen to pass through.

In the US, the number one cause of COPD is long-term cigarette smoking.4 Exposure to other forms of polluted air — like cigar smoke, pipe smoke, or secondhand smoke, or general air pollution — can also lead to COPD. Some people are also genetically more likely to develop COPD because they don’t have enough of a protein called alpha-1-antitrypsin (AAt).4,5 

Black Americans have a higher risk of developing COPD6, which can be partially explained by disparities in socioeconomic status and environmental conditions — for example, poor air quality in neighborhoods and workplaces.7 Plus, having asthma is also a risk factor for COPD, and Black Americans are 40% more likely to have asthma than whites.8

Common symptoms: COPD symptoms include9:

  • Frequent coughing
  • Wheezing
  • Making excess mucus
  • Shortness of breath
  • Having a hard time breathing deeply

Potential complications: People with COPD will occasionally experience flares. During these flares, their respiratory symptoms will typically get worse. COPD can also make it more likely for people to develop respiratory infections like the common cold, flu, and pneumonia. Other complications include weight loss and respiratory failure.5

  1. Common Cold

What it is & how it happens: The common cold is a respiratory infection caused by a virus. Many different viruses can cause a cold — more than 200 to be exact10 — but rhinoviruses are usually to blame for the common cold. Rhinoviruses can also cause ear infections and trigger asthma attacks.11 The common cold holds true to its name because it’s one of the most common viral infections, and most people catch a cold multiple times per year.

Common symptoms: Cold symptoms are typically mild and include10:

  • Sneezing
  • A stuffy and/or runny nose
  • Coughing
  • Post-nasal drip (mucus that drips down your throat)

Some people also have watery eyes, a sore throat, and even a fever during a cold.

Potential complications: A cold is usually an uneventful infection. It’s rare to experience complications from a cold. But some older adults or people with weaker immune systems may develop additional infections because of the common cold.

DID YOU KNOW: Cold weather itself does not cause a cold. But it is true that during the cooler seasons, air tends to be dryer, as well as the insides of your nose dryer. This makes it easier for viruses to spread.12 Also, during cooler seasons, people are more likely to gather indoors, which can also cause more germs to spread around. 

  1. COVID-19

What it is & how it happens: By this point, we all know quite a bit about COVID-19. As a refresher, COVID-19 is an infectious respiratory condition caused by a certain type of coronavirus called SARS-CoV-2.13 

This coronavirus began to spread in late 2019 and morphed into a fully-fledged global pandemic in early 2020. Because there was no vaccine for this novel disease, many people contracted COVID-19 and died from it. Now, the best way to prevent COVID-19 — in addition to social distancing precautions and masking, when appropriate — is through vaccination.

Common symptoms: COVID-19 symptoms can be very similar to flu symptoms. Shortness of breath or losing taste and smell are also symptoms of COVID-19, though they can happen with the flu as well.14 

The severity of COVID-19 symptoms can vary from one person to the next. Some people have no symptoms at all, while others get very sick. The only way to know for sure whether you have COVID-19 is to take a test, whether at home or through your healthcare provider.

Potential complications: Like the flu, COVID-19 can cause serious complications — some even fatal — especially in people who have chronic diseases or weakened immune systems. Possible complications include15:

  • Pneumonia
  • Organ failure
  • Acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), a lung injury that causes fluid to build up in the lungs, leading to low levels of oxygen in the blood
  • Blood clots
  • Acute kidney injury (AKI)

Someone who develops complications from COVID-19 may need to be hospitalized in order to manage them.

  1. Flu

What it is & how it happens: The flu — short for influenza — is caused by the influenza virus. Although it’s possible to get the flu at any time of year, flu activity starts to pick up around October and might not lessen until as late as May.16 

One of the best ways to prevent the flu is to get a flu vaccine — commonly known as a “flu shot” — every year. It doesn’t guarantee that you won’t get sick, but it helps protect you from getting really sick and needing to be hospitalized since the flu can be severe, especially for babies, the elderly, and people with weakened immune systems.

Common symptoms: Flu symptoms and cold symptoms are actually pretty similar. Because of that, it may be difficult to tell them apart, and the only way to know for sure whether you have the flu is to get a flu test from a health care provider.

A few symptoms the flu can cause — which colds typically don’t — include17:

  • Body aches, muscle aches, and head aches
  • Fever with chills
  • Fatigue

Children with the flu are also more likely to have vomiting and diarrhea, although some adults may too.17

Potential complications: Most people recover from the flu with no major complications. But the flu can be dangerous because it can cause secondary infections, meaning you can get another infection in addition to the flu.17 Secondary infections, like an ear or sinus infection, may not be as serious. But some people can develop pneumonia, which can be a more serious, and potentially deadly, infection. Pneumonia can also lead to inflammation of the heart, brain, or muscle tissues. 

People who have chronic diseases are more likely to experience complications from the flu17, which makes it especially important to get a flu shot every year.

  1. Pneumonia

What it is & how it happens: Pneumonia is an infection of the lungs — specifically the small sacs inside your lungs.18 As you’ve read, it’s possible to develop pneumonia as a result of other infections like the flu or COVID-19. But you can also develop pneumonia without having had any other infection. 

Pneumonia can be caused by viruses, bacteria, or even fungi. In adults, it is usually caused by bacteria, and in children, it’s usually caused by a virus.19 Getting the pneumococcal vaccine is an effective way to lower your risk of developing pneumonia.

Common symptoms: Because pneumonia is a lung infection, many symptoms are similar to flu and COVID-19 symptoms. They include19:

  • High fever 
  • A cough with yellow or green mucus
  • Fatigue
  • Shortness of breath and/or rapid breathing
  • Chills
  • Low appetite
  • Chest pain, especially when coughing or breathing deeply

Confusion and changes in mental state can also happen, especially in older adults.

Potential complications: Depending on the severity, pneumonia can require a person to be hospitalized and can even be fatal. Any infection that affects the lungs has the ability to disrupt your ability to breathe. And some people with severe pneumonia may need to be placed on a ventilator to help them breathe because of respiratory failure or ARDS.19

Pneumonia can also cause fluid to develop around the lungs or cause lung abscesses, which are pus-filled holes in the lungs.19

  1. Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV)

What it is & how it happens: RSV is a virus that infects the nose, throat, lungs, and airways, and it’s been in the news quite a bit recently.20 The CDC has acknowledged that there has been a surge in RSV diagnoses and RSV-related trips to the emergency department in some parts of the country.21 While anyone can catch RSV, infants and older adults are most seriously affected by it.21

Common symptoms: RSV symptoms can be mild and similar to cold symptoms. They might include22

  • Runny nose
  • Loss of appetite
  • Coughing
  • Sneezing
  • Fever
  • Wheezing 

But for infants and older adults, RSV can cause much more serious complications.Potential complications: Like the other illnesses on the list, secondary infections can develop as a result of RSV. According to the CDC, RSV is the most common cause of inflammation of small airways in the lungs, also known as bronchiolitis. It’s also the leading cause of pneumonia in children under 1 year old.22

References:

  1. NHS. Bronchiectasis. https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/bronchiectasis
  2. American Lung Association. Bronchiectasis. https://www.lung.org/lung-health-diseases/lung-disease-lookup/bronchiectasis
  3. NIH National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. What is Bronchiectasis? https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/bronchiectasis
  4. Mayo Clinic. COPD: Overview. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/copd/ 
  5. NIH National Library of Medicine. Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK559281/
  6. Mina, N., Soubani, A. O., Cote, M. L., Suwan, T., Wenzlaff, A. S., Jhajhria, S., Samarah, H., & Schwartz, A. G. (2012). The relationship between chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and lung cancer in African American patients. Clinical lung cancer, 13(2), 149–156. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cllc.2011.09.006
  7. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Research Story Tip: For Blacks with Respiratory Ills, Individual and Neighborhood Poverty Yield Worse Outcomes. https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/news/newsroom/news-releases/research-story-tip-for-blacks-with-respiratory-ills-individual-and-neighborhood-poverty-yield-worse-outcomes
  8. US Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health. Asthma and African Americans. https://minorityhealth.hhs.gov/omh/browse.aspx?lvl=4&lvlid=15 
  9. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Basics About COPD. https://www.cdc.gov/copd/basics-about.html#anchor_1510688168948 
  10. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Common Cold. https://www.cdc.gov/antibiotic-use/colds.html
  11. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Common Colds: Protect Yourself and Others.
  12. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Common Cold. https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/common-cold
  13. World Health Organization. Coronavirus disease (COVID-19). https://www.who.int/health-topics/coronavirus
  14. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. COVID-19: Symptoms. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/symptoms-testing/symptoms.html
  15. Mayo Clinic. Coronavirus disease 2019. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/coronavirus/symptoms-causes/syc-20479963
  16. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Flu Season.
  17. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Flu Symptoms & Complications. https://www.cdc.gov/flu/symptoms/symptoms.htm 
  18. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Pneumonia. https://www.cdc.gov/pneumonia/index.html
  19. Cleveland Clinic. Pneumonia. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/4471-pneumonia#symptoms-and-causes
  20. New York Times. Which Virus Is It This Time? New Yorkers Are Sick of Being Sick. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/12/16/nyregion/covid-flu-rsv-sick.html
  21. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Respiratory Syncytial Virus Infection (RSV). https://www.cdc.gov/rsv/index.html
  22. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Respiratory Syncytial Virus Infection (RSV): Symptoms & Care. https://www.cdc.gov/rsv/about/symptoms.html 

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