Learn about the consequences of acute respiratory infections and how to prevent possible contagion

Acute respiratory infections (ARI) are a group of diseases that occur in the respiratory system caused by various microorganisms (viruses and bacteria); they are usually contagious and therefore spread rapidly. They are considered a major cause of infectious disease morbidity and mortality worldwide; specifically, World Health Organization (WHO) data indicate that nearly 4 million people die from these infections each year.

ARI is one of the most common reasons for hospital visits or admissions. In particular, they tend to affect children and older adults; however, people of other age groups can also suffer from these disorders.

Transmission method: common denominator

The common form of transmission for most acute respiratory infections is droplets expelled when people cough and sneeze; that is, microbes are spread when an uninfected person comes into close contact with a sick person. Additionally, a person may become infected by touching a contaminated surface and then touching their nose or mouth. 3

The incidence of ARDs and their spread in populations varies according to different factors, such as environmental conditions (season, temperature, crowded households, and general hygiene), personal factors (age, immune and nutritional status, presence of other diseases ) or smoking), the characteristics of the virus or bacteria (mode of transmission and virulence), and the effectiveness of health care in combination with infection prevention and control measures (such as vaccination).

Types of acute respiratory infection and possible complications

1. Influenza

It’s a respiratory illness caused by the flu virus that infects the nose, throat and, in some cases, the lungs. It can be mild or serious, and in some cases, has resulted in death.

Anyone can get the flu, and its serious health consequences can happen at any age; however, those most at risk are people 65 or older, pregnant women, children under five, and people with certain chronic medical conditions (diabetes, heart disease or asthma).

Possible complications from the flu include pneumonia, ear infections, sinusitis, and even exacerbations of chronic illnesses in patients.

2. Respiratory syncytial or syncytial virus (RSV)

This respiratory virus can cause infections of a person’s lungs and respiratory system. It’s usually common in children (most are infected by age two), but it can infect adults too.

In healthy people, the symptoms are mild (nasal congestion, dry cough, headache and sore throat, and low-grade fever), may resemble the common cold, and can be treated with self-care measures. However, RSV can cause serious infections in other people, such as children under 12 months (including premature babies), people with heart or lung disease or a weakened immune system, and older adults. In these cases, symptoms include a more severe cough, wheezing, difficulty breathing, and even cyanosis (a bluish tint to the skin due to lack of oxygen).

RSV can cause either pneumonia or bronchiolitis; in fact, it is the more common cause of both. In addition, middle ear infections (especially in infants or young children), asthma, the possibility of reinfection with the virus, and even the need for hospitalization for monitoring and treatment of any respiratory problems.

3. Pneumococcus

Pneumococcal disease refers to an infection caused by the bacteria Streptococcus pneumoniae, or pneumococcus. It includes different types of infections—some mild and others that can have long-term consequences—with pneumococcal pneumonia being the most prominent, which is estimated to kill about 1 in 20 people with pneumococcal pneumonia.

According to the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), pneumococcus is the second leading cause of community-acquired pneumonia that may require hospitalization, after respiratory syncytial virus. Complications of pneumococcal pneumonia include infection of the membranes around the lungs and chest, the space between the sacs around the heart, and airway obstruction.

Likewise, the bacteria can cause other infections, such as pneumococcal meningitis (an infection of the tissue that covers the brain and spinal cord). An estimated one in 12 children and one in six older adults may die from the infection, while others may experience long-term problems such as hearing loss and developmental delays.

Pneumococcus can also cause sepsis (the body’s extreme reaction to infection), with complications ranging from kidney failure to lung, heart and brain damage.

In general, pneumococcal infections are more common between the ages of two months and three years, with the risk increasing again after age 65.

4. New Coronary Pneumonia (COVID-19)

Covid-19 disease is caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus, and people infected with the virus may experience mild to moderate respiratory illness. However, some others may suffer severely and even require medical attention. Post covid-19 symptoms include: fatigue, shortness of breath, shortness of breath and cough; muscle or joint pain, blood clots and blood vessel problems.

In addition, patients with severe disease may develop inflammation, immune system problems, damage to the kidneys, skin, and heart, among other conditions (diabetes).

Anyone can get covid-19, but older adults and people with other medical conditions (cardiovascular, cancer or respiratory disease) are more likely to develop severe disease.

5. Adenovirus

Adenoviruses are a group of viruses that frequently cause respiratory illnesses such as colds, bronchiolitis, and even pneumonia. As a result of the last condition, children with pneumonia may develop chronic lung disease. Another condition they may have is an intestinal infection (under five years of age), including partial intestinal blockage.

What can be done to prevent possible infection?

The best time to stop a virus or bacterium is before it infects a human, Pfizer said. Vaccines are one of the greatest advances in public health in this regard, preventing possible contagion from diseases such as influenza, pneumococcal disease and covid-19. Its widespread use has led to the control, elimination, or near-elimination of many infectious diseases.

Other ways to prevent the spread of these infectious organisms include:

• Avoid close contact with people with respiratory illnesses to minimize contact with droplets or salivary secretions.

• Wash your hands regularly, especially after touching potentially contaminated surfaces.

• Keep the environment clean.

• Avoid sharing eating utensils, toothbrushes or towels.

• Cover your nose and mouth when you sneeze.

•Try not to smoke around babies because they are at higher risk of RSV infection.


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