Why are Respiratory Infections so Dangerous?

The inability to breathe can be terrifying and lead to lasting damage, in fact a human can only survive around two minutes without oxygen before permanent damage is likely to occur. One of the most serious  symptoms of an acute respiratory infection is restricted breathing – making respiratory illness an especially dangerous condition. In the face of these types of infections physicians must act in a prompt and thorough manner to provide the best treatment possible. 

If a physician fails to treat an infection sufficiently, and complications such as pneumonia, respiratory failure, or death occurs, a physician may be held liable for medical malpractice.

What are the Types & Causes of Acute Respiratory Infections?

When any component of the upper or lower airway becomes infected, it can lead to an acute respiratory infection. The upper respiratory system begins in the sinuses and ends in the vocal cords while the lower respiratory system starts at the vocal cords and ends in the lungs. The body’s respiratory system includes many important organs and functions that are constantly being exposed to foreign matter, making infection a common risk. 

The most common causes of an acute upper respiratory infection are sinus infections, strep throat, and the common cold. In regard to the lower respiratory system, serious causes of infection include bronchitis and pneumonia. 

An acute respiratory infection occurs when a virus enters the body, typically through the mouth or nose, but possibly through other points of contact, such as the eyes, and affects the ability to breathe. Respiratory infections are highly contagious and easily spread via aerosol droplets and direct hand-to-hand contact.

What are the Symptoms of Respiratory Infection?

Nasal congestion, sneezing, coughing, and runny nose are the most common symptoms of upper respiratory infections. These symptoms are caused when the mucous membranes within the respiratory tract become inflamed. Mild symptoms range from a sore throat and a cough, where  severe symptoms may cause a patient to be unable to breathe. 

Lower respiratory infections can cause symptoms including severe cough, shortness of breath, chest tightness, and wheezing. Other signs of respiratory infection include, fever, fatigue, headache, and pain during swallowing.

Both of these types of infection require immediate care if there is discharge, pain, or a fever lasting more than six to ten days.

Common Complications of Acute Respiratory Infection

For the most part, respiratory viruses, such as the common cold, do not turn into severe infections, but that is not always the case. It is important to be vigilant in understanding the warning signs of serious infection, as well as any preexisting conditions, that may lead to hospitalization. 

Complications of acute respiratory infection are extremely serious and if left untreated, may result in permanent damage to the lungs and, in some cases, can cause death. A patient may begin to experience respiratory failure, or a rise of CO2 in the blood, it is this excess CO2 that causes the lungs to stop functioning properly. 

Respiratory failure, also known as respiratory arrest, can eventually lead to the lungs ceasing all function. An even more serious complication is congestive heart failure. Heart failure occurs when there is not enough oxygen in the blood to fuel the heart and it fails to pump the right amount of blood. This causes fluid to build up around the heart further restricting the efficacy of the muscle. 

Diagnosis & Treatment

Upper respiratory infections are one of the most common reasons for a physician visit. A physician might diagnose a patient easily by a physical exam or throat swab. If a physician suspects something more serious, such as pneumonia, they will likely need to perform several tests to make a diagnosis, such as a chest X-ray or CT scan. Antibiotics or antiviral medications are needed to treat the infection if it has progressed to this stage. 

If a physician fails to determine the cause of an infection, a patient may experience serious life-threatening complications. Left untreated, these complications may lead to a patient requiring emergency intervention, especially if they experience shortness of breath, fever of 103 degrees or more, or loss of consciousness.

Who is at Risk?

People most at risk of catching a respiratory virus are children and older adults, particularly those with underlying heart disease or lung complications, because their immune systems are more susceptible to infection. Children become highly susceptible to infection when surrounded by large groups of other children – such as at school. Smokers, and those who have been exposed to second-hand smoke, are also at higher risk as their lung functions have likely already been compromised. 

While children and older adults experience the highest risk for contracting a respiratory infection, no one is safe from these types of viruses. Due to the nature of the respiratory system, and it’s inherent vulnerability to infection, and the communicability of these diseases, everyone should practice regular handwashing, wear a mask if experiencing symptoms to avoid exposing others, and ultimately stay home if sick.

How can We Prevent Respiratory Diseases From Spreading?

During the fall and winter seasons it is especially important to be aware of preventative measures as infection is more likely. In addition, all measures that improve the immune system could also reduce the risk of infections. Some of these measures include, quitting smoking, reducing stress, and maintaining a well balanced diet. 

While respiratory infections will often resolve on their own, if a physician fails to treat a serious infection, and complications such as respiratory failure, heart failure, or death occurs as a result of negligent treatment, they may be held liable for medical malpractice.

With respiratory illnesses on the rise with the arrival of COVID-19 in Spring of 2020, these preventative measures are even more critical. If you or one of your loved ones have experienced delayed or misdiagnosis of a respiratory complication, Miller & Wagner are here to assist.

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