Respiration and Health

The respiratory tract is constantly exposed to environmental air. The quality of this air can affect our health. The presence of a disease means that homeostasis is threatened, and if the condition is not brought under control, death is possible.

Upper Respiratory Tract Infections

The upper respiratory tract consists of the nasal cavities, the pharynx, and the larynx. Upper respiratory infections (URI) can spread from the nasal cavities to the sinuses, middle ears, and larynx. Viral infections sometimes lead to secondary bacterial infections. What we call “strep throat” is a primary bacterial infection caused by Streptococcus pyogenes that can lead to a generalized upper respiratory infection and even a systemic (affecting the body as a whole) infection. Although antibiotics have no effect on viral infections, they are successfully used to treat most bacterial infections, including strep throat. The symptoms of strep throat are severe sore throat, high fever, and white patches on a dark red throat.


Sinusitis is an infection of the cranial sinuses, the cavities within the facial skeleton that drain into the nasal cavities. Only about 1-3% of upper respiratory infections are accompanied by sinusitis. Sinusitis develops when nasal congestion blocks the tiny openings leading to the sinuses. Symptoms include postnasal discharge as well as facial pain that worsens when the patient bends forward. Pain and tenderness usually occur over the lower forehead or over the cheeks. If the latter, toothache is also a complaint. Successful treatment depends on restoring proper drainage of the sinuses. Even a hot shower and sleeping upright can be helpful. Otherwise, spray decongestants are preferred over oral antihistamines, which thicken rather than liquefy the material trapped in the sinuses.

Otitis Media

Otitis media is a bacterial infection of the middle ear. The middle ear is not a part of the respiratory tract, but this infection is considered here because it is a complication often seen in children who have a nasal infection. Infection can spread by way of the auditory (eustachian) tube that leads from the nasopharynx to the middle ear. Pain is the primary symptom of a middle ear infection. A sense of fullness, hearing loss, vertigo (dizziness), and fever may also be present. Antibiotics almost always bring about a full recovery, and recurrence is probably due to a new infection. Tubes (called tympanostomy tubes) are sometimes placed in the eardrums of children with multiple recurrences to help prevent the buildup of pressure in the middle ear and the possibility of hearing loss. Normally, the tubes fall out with time.


Tonsillitis occurs when the tonsils, masses of lymphatic tissue in the pharynx, become inflamed and enlarged. The tonsils in the posterior wall of the nasopharynx are often called adenoids. If tonsillitis occurs frequently and enlargement makes breathing difficult, the tonsils can be removed surgically in a tonsillectomy. Fewer tonsillectomies are performed today than in the past because we now know that the tonsils remove many of the pathogens that enter the pharynx; therefore, they are a first line of defense against invasion of the body.
Common bronchial and pulmonary diseases
Figure 14.10 Common bronchial and pulmonary diseases. Exposure to infectious pathogens and/or polluted air, including tobacco smoke, causes the diseases and disorders shown here.


Laryngitis is an infection of the larynx with accompanying hoarseness leading to the inability to talk in an audible voice. Usually, laryngitis disappears with treatment of the upper respiratory infection. Persistent hoarseness without the presence of an upper respiratory infection is one of the warning signs of cancer, and therefore should be looked into by a physician.

Lower Respiratory Tract Disorders

Lower respiratory tract disorders include infections, restrictive pulmonary disorders, obstructive pulmonary disorders, and lung cancer.

Lower Respiratory Infections

Acute bronchitis, pneumonia, and tuberculosis are infections of the lower respiratory tract. Acute bronchitis is an infection of the primary and secondary bronchi. Usually, it is preceded by a viral URI that has led to a secondary bacterial infection. Most likely, a nonproductive cough has become a deep cough that expectorates mucus and perhaps pus.
     Pneumonia is a viral or bacterial infection of the lungs in which the bronchi and alveoli fill with thick fluid
(Fig. 14.10). Most often, it is preceded by influenza. High fever and chills, with headache and chest pain, are symptoms of pneumonia. Rather than being a generalized lung infection, pneumonia may be localized in specific lobules of the lungs; obviously, the more lobules involved, the more serious is the infection. Pneumonia can be caused by a bacterium that is usually held in check but has gained the upper hand due to stress and/or reduced immunity. AIDS patients are subject to a particularly rare form of pneumonia caused by the protozoan Pneumocystis carinii. Pneumonia of this type is almost never seen in individuals with a healthy immune system.

     Pulmonary tuberculosis is caused by the tubercle bacillus, a type of bacterium. When tubercle bacilli invade the lung tissue, the cells build a protective capsule about the foreigners, isolating them from the rest of the body. This tiny capsule is called a tubercle. If the resistance of the body is high, the imprisoned organisms die, but if the resistance is low, the organisms eventually can be liberated. If a chest X ray detects active tubercles, the individual is put on appropriate drug therapy to ensure the localization of the disease and the eventual destruction of any live bacteria. It is possible to tell if a person has ever been exposed to tuberculosis with a test in which a highly diluted extract of the bacillus is injected into the skin of the patient. A person who has never been in contact with the tubercle bacillus shows no reaction, but one who has had or is fighting an infection shows an area of inflammation that peaks in about 48 hours.
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