Viruses and bacteria can cause many types of illnesses involving the head, throat and lungs. And many of these problems may have similar symptoms. It can be tricky to know exactly what the problem is and what you should do about it.

There are many respiratory illnesses, ranging from mild to serious. These include colds, flu, pneumonia, strep, croup, bronchitis, respiratory syncytial virus, bronchiolitis, pleurisy, sinusitis, tonsillitis, laryngitis, rhinitis and pharyngitis, among others.

How can you tell what you have since symptoms can be so much alike? And how should you decide which illnesses can be handled at home? Which should involve a doctor’s care? And which call for a trip to an urgent care center or emergency room (ER)?

Dr. Elif Oker, Blue Cross and Blue Shield medical director, says that there are useful tips for people trying to understand the complex signs of head, lung and throat health problems. But she says the best source of information is your doctor.

Care at Home

For less serious problems, many people cope with the symptoms on their own. Common head, throat and lung infections may cause aches, chills, stuffy noses, fever, sneezing, sweating and coughs. No fun, to be sure, but not life threatening, either.

Rest, plenty of fluids and over-the-counter medicine to ease symptoms are most often enough for problems like colds, bronchitis, flu, croup and sinusitis. The illness will likely run its course over five to 10 days.

When to Call the Doctor

If symptoms don’t get better after two weeks, it may be time to see a doctor.

Some respiratory problems are caused by a bacterial infection. In those cases, an antibiotic will be needed to clear it up.

And it is a good plan to call your doctor if you or a loved one has these symptoms:

  • Coughing up blood or green-tinged mucus
  • A loud barking cough, which could be croup
  • Wheezing
  • Trouble breathing, shortness of breath or rapid breathing
  • Pain or pressure in the chest
  • Confusion
  • Bluish-colored lips or nails
  • High fever (For adults, over 103 degrees Fahrenheit. For babies under 3 months old, rectal temperature over 100.4. For babies over 3 months old, rectal temperature over 102.)
  • Convulsions from fever (this mostly affects children)
  • Fever or cough that becomes severe or won’t go away
  • Severe sore throat and tender lymph nodes, swollen tonsils at the back of the throat, and problems swallowing

When Care Can’t Wait

You may need to go to an ER if you or a loved one is:

  • Not able to breathe
  • In great pain
  • Listless or disoriented
  • Not able to take in fluids
  • Vomiting
  • Unresponsive or unconscious

High Risk Groups

Those most likely to need medical care are children, the elderly, pregnant women and people with weak immune systems.

Respiratory illnesses can quickly turn serious, especially among very young and older people. For them, colds, flu, pneumonia, strep throat and other conditions of the chest and lungs need close attention.

Why? Immune systems in the very young are underdeveloped. In many people 65 and older, immune systems don’t work as well as they once did. And people with serious health problems are also at risk.

Flu can lead to pneumonia among these groups, so they should get a flu shot each year. Doctors may also give those in some at-risk groups a shot to help protect them from pneumonia.

Prevention Is the Best Cure

Dr. Oker reminds us that we can take steps to help stay healthy during cold and flu season.

“Many respiratory health problems can be prevented simply by washing your hands often and covering your nose and mouth when you cough or sneeze,” Dr. Oker says. “Chances of getting any respiratory disease yourself are lowered by not touching your eyes, mouth or nose.”