winter respiratory illness in lungs

The Most Common Winter Respiratory Illnesses 

Discover this year’s top respiratory illnesses and learn how to prevent them from affecting your life. 

It is that time of year again. You know, the one where you cough once, and everyone in the room gives you a death stare. The winter months are known to bring cold weather and a long list of respiratory illnesses. The concern for health safety in the post-pandemic world leaves many to wonder, all winter, is it a common cold with a runny nose, a cough from allergies, or the return of COVID-19? 

All respiratory viruses have similar symptoms, leaving many confused about what they actually have.  

Below is the ultimate guide to this winter’s most common respiratory illnesses and what action you can take to prevent sickness this season.  

What is a respiratory illness?  

A respiratory illness is any infection or disorder in the body that affects the lungs and respiration. Also, commonly called a respiratory tract infection, almost everyone in their lifetime will experience a form of respiratory illness by their second birthday.  

The chest cavity is the targeted site for a wide range of illnesses, as the area is completely exposed to whatever enters the body during inhalation and exhalation.  

During the winter months, people spend more time inside and around others which makes passing viruses from one person to another easier. Also, the cold, dry quality of the winter months weakens the body’s resistance and strength to fight off illnesses quickly.  

Many will experience and have already experienced a common cold, however, what if it is more? How would you know? Take a look below.  

Top 4 Respiratory Illnesses This Winter  

1. Respiratory Syncytial Virus Infection  

The rate of those diagnosed with Respiratory Syncytial Virus Infection, or  RSV, is increasing rapidly, especially in young children. This is an infection of the lungs and respiratory tract. The symptoms usually present mild, like a common cold, but in infants, older adults, or anyone with a weak immune system, RSV can be very severe and even deadly.  

If you are exposed to RSV, you most likely will experience the following symptoms in waves:  

  • Runny nose  
  • Decrease in appetite  
  • Coughing  
  • Sneezing  
  • Fever 
  • Wheezing  

The infection is projected to last one to two weeks and usually fights itself off. Those infected with the disease are instructed to take over-the-counter cold and flu and pain medications, drink a lot of fluids, and consult a healthcare provider if symptoms are unbearable. 

As stated above, in people with weakened immune systems, like infants and older adults, RSV can lead to more serious respiratory infections such as bronchiolitis (inflammation of small lung airways) and pneumonia (lung infection). If a person has trouble breathing or suffers from severe hydration, they are encouraged to go to the hospital for further medical treatment.  

2. Rhinovirus 

Rhinovirus is another illness that is seeing a rising rate this season, especially in younger children. This includes the infection of either the upper or lower respiratory tract or both. Like most respiratory illnesses, the virus also presents itself similar to the common cold, however, this specific illness shows up with the enterovirus. 

Rhinovirus occurs year-round, with heightened rates around the fall and spring. The symptoms of rhinovirus are usually mild and short-lived cold-like symptoms:  

  • Difficulty breathing 
  • Coughing  
  • Congestion 
  • Body aches 
  • Fever 

However, when paired with enterovirus, the symptoms present more severe with diarrhea and vomiting. Treatment is pretty simple with the proper rest, hydration, and over-the-counter decongestions.

Recently, there has been a direct linkage between Acute Flaccid Myelitis to rhinovirus and enterovirus in infants. Acute Flaccid Myelitis is very serious and rapid paralysis. Anyone experiencing severe symptoms like numbness, weakness in extremities, and difficulty swallowing is encouraged to seek emergency care immediately. 

3. Covid-19  

The Coronavirus 19, or COVID-19, produced a massive scare in 2020 around its rapid spread and unprecedented nature compared to other coronaviruses. The spread has slowed due to preventative measures – social distancing, masks, vaccines – however, the virus is still possible to contract.  

The virus affects humans and animals and has many different subvariants. The primary symptoms are: 

  • Cough  
  • Shortness of breath 
  • Fever  

The virus usually lasts in the body for one to two weeks and is highly contagious. It is recommended to stay isolated from others for at least five days or while symptoms are present. There are vaccine options that minimize the intensity of the symptoms. Over-the-counter medicines for cold and flu, pain, and fever are suggested for treatment. If your symptoms are severe, like trouble breathing, you are encouraged to go to the hospital.  

4. Influenza  

Influenza, or as we most commonly know it as the flu, is one of the most common respiratory illnesses with the most extended peak season (late fall until May.) This virus, first seen over 1000 years ago, affects the nose, throat, and lungs. Those inflicted with the flu will most likely experience the following:  

  • Fever 
  • Fatigue 
  • Body aches 
  • Cough 
  • Headache 

The illness usually lasts five to seven days, and those infected are suggested to stay isolated from others, rest, drink liquids, and take over-the-counter pain medications as needed. A flu vaccine is available year-round, reducing the chance of catching the flu by 60%. If your symptoms present severe or worsen over time, you are encouraged to go to the hospital. 

Respiratory Illness Prevention  

Most respiratory illnesses are spread the same way – through respiratory droplets from coughing, sneezing, and talking. Prevention methods are also the same:  

  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing and sneezing, and dispose of the tissue properly. 
  • Wash your hands regularly.  
  • Regularly clean surfaces, especially in common areas (a virus can live on a surface for 48 hours.)  
  • Get an immunization shot or vaccine (only available for the flu and COVID-19.)  

We are here to help 

If you are experiencing severe respiratory illness symptoms, it is important to contact a medical provider immediately. 

We understand that it may be hard to find quick availability with your doctor, and who wants to wait in a crowded waiting room during peak respiratory illness season? That’s why we are here to help! Skip the wait and come into Topeka ER & Hospital, your neighborhood ER, skilled to handle all your medical emergency needs - 24/7, 365 days a year. 

Disclaimer: As a service to our readers,Topeka ER & Hospital  and Nutex Health state no content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinicians.