Lower Respiratory Infections

How to Recognize and Treat Them

Most people have heard the term upper respiratory infection. It is often used interchangeably when describing a respiratory virus or the common cold. But do you know what a lower respiratory infection is?

Lower respiratory infections are illnesses that affect the respiratory system below the throat. Any infection that affects the lungs and lower airways is considered a lower respiratory infection.

The most common and well-known lower respiratory infections are pneumonia and bronchitis, as well as bronchiolitis in children.

Chest x-ray
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Pneumonia is an infection of the lungs. There are many types of pneumonia. It can be caused by different types of bacteria, viruses, fungi and even inhaled chemicals or solid objects (such as food). Many cases of pneumonia occur as a complication of an upper respiratory infection such as a cold or the flu.

Most of the time, people with pneumonia are treated with antibiotics. Other medications may be necessary to help with the symptoms. If your illness is severe or you are at high risk, you may be hospitalized when you have pneumonia. To help reduce your risk of serious illness, get your flu vaccine each year. Older adults should get a pneumonia vaccine as well.


Bronchitis is irritation and swelling of the airways leading to the lungs. Most often, it is caused by a virus and will go away on its own. Although coughing can be uncomfortable and last for weeks, antibiotics are rarely helpful for bronchitis since they do not kill viruses. Other treatments may be useful if you have been diagnosed with bronchitis. Your healthcare provider may prescribe an inhaler to help with a cough and breathing difficulty. She may also recommend over the counter medications such as pain relievers or expectorants.

If you have bronchitis but start to feel worse and run a fever, contact your healthcare provider or seek medical attention.

Sometimes secondary bacterial infections develop in people with bronchitis. If this happens, your treatment will be different and antibiotics may be necessary.


Bronchiolitis is inflammation or swelling of the small airways in the lungs. It is an illness that occurs primarily in children younger than 2 years old. It most commonly occurs in babies between 3 and 6 months old, with respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) being the primary cause.

Wheezing and coughing are the primary symptoms of bronchiolitis. It can be a serious and sometimes fatal illness for young infants. If you notice any of these signs that your child is having difficulty breathing, seek medical attention right away, even if you don't suspect bronchiolitis. It's not always obvious when a child is having trouble breathing. Knowing what to watch for could save a child's life.

There is no medication or vaccination to cure RSV. Preventative medication is recommended for children under 2 years old at the highest risk for RSV. 

Synagis (palivizumab) is a shot used to prevent severe lower respiratory tract illnesses in premature babies and children at high risk of RSV. It is given monthly during the RSV season. Your pediatrician may discuss this option if your child is at high risk for RSV infection.

A Word From Verywell

Lower respiratory infections can be dangerous and generally are more serious than upper respiratory infections. Know what to watch for so you can seek medical attention if it's needed.

4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American Lung Association. Pneumonia symptoms and diagnosis.

  2. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Bronchitis.

  3. Ten, IS. Bronchiolitis. The Nemours Foundation.

  4. American Academy of Pediatrics. Updated guidance for palivizumab prophylaxis among infants and young children at increased risk of hospitalization for respiratory syncytial virus infection.

Additional Reading
  • "Bronchiolitis". Medical Encyclopedia 22 Aug 13. MedlinePlus. US National Library of Medicine. National Institutes of Health. US Department of Health and Human Services. 
  • "Parainfluenza". Medical Encyclopedia 30 Aug 14. MedlinePlus. US National Library of Medicine. National Institutes of Health. US Department of Health and Human Services.  
  • "Infection and Incidence". RSV 4 Dec 14. National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Disease, Division of Viral Diseases. US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. US Department of Health and Human Services. 

By Kristina Duda, RN
Kristina Duda, BSN, RN, CPN, has been working in healthcare since 2002. She specializes in pediatrics and disease and infection prevention.