Airway infections are common both among adults and children. In fact it is the most common type of acute illness that affects every person quite frequently in life. However, many people still confuse infections affecting different parts of the airways. Although all parts of the airways serve the same primary function – the movement of air to and from the lungs – each part may have additional functions.Therefore understanding the terms related to these parts of the airways with different names is important in order to understand how the symptoms may vary when an infection sets in.
Some types of airway infections are more severe than others, especially when it affects the lower airways close to the lungs. Delaying treatment or not using medication as prescribed can lead to serious complications, which may sometimes be fatal. The airway is the common term for the respiratory tract which starts at the nose and ends at the lungs. It is important to note that while the lungs are a part of the respiratory tract, it is not typically considered to be a part of the airways. The lungs are responsible for the exchanges of gas between the air and bloodstream. The airways cleans, warms and carries air to and from the lungs.
Most of us know the common airways infections like the common cold. It is a viral infection that involves the nose and throat primarily. But each part of the airway can be infected separately giving rise to a host of symptoms.
Medical Names For Airway Problems
The suffix -itis usually indicates inflammation of any body part. However, it is still confusing for most people as the words use to describe different body parts largely originated from Latin. Inflammation is not always due to an infection. It can occur with mechanical or chemical injury. It may be a result of allergies where the immune system becomes hypersensitive to otherwise harmless substances (allergens). And it can arise when the body’s immune system turns against it and attack certain tissues or organs where it is referred to as an autoimmune disease.
However, most airway problems that are acute, meaning that it arises suddenly and often resolves with/without treatment, are due to infections – mostly viral, often bacterial and in rare cases fungal as well. It is uncommon for any airway infection to be entirely isolated to just one part of the airway. For example, an infection in the voice box (larynx) is usually associated with an infection and/or inflammation in the throat (pharynx) or trachea (wind pipe). Therefore the medical terms for an airway infection may be a combination of names, for example laryngotracheitis : voice box (larynx) + wind pipe (trachea) + inflammation (-itis).
Nose And Sinuses
The term for inflammation of the nose and paranasal sinuses is rhinitis and sinusitis respectively. Most acute cases of rhinitis are due to viral infections. Acute sinusitis can either be viral or bacterial, although fungal sinusitis is now known to be a bigger problem than was previously thought. Since the lining of the nose is continuous with the paranasal sinuses, infection often affects both areas simultaneously. The collective term for infection of the nose and sinuses is rhinosinusitis.
- Runny nose (coryza)
- Nasal congestion
- Headaches and facial pain
- Post-nasal drip
Throat And Tonsils
The throat is known as the pharynx. The tonsils are part of the throat sitting at the sides of where the mouth leads to the throat. Inflammation of the tonsils involves the pharnyx and vice versa. Therefore the term pharyngitis (inflamed throat) and tonsillitis (tonsils) are often referred to as tonsillopharyngitis as it is difficult to differentiate each. While it is often inflamed during viral infections, bacterial tonsillitis and bacterial pharyngitis are also very common.
- Sore throat
- Hoarse voice
- Difficulty swallowing (dysphagia)
- Painful swallowing (odynophagia)
- Bad breath
- Stiff neck and headaches
- Sometimes yellow to white coating on tonsils
Voice Box And Vocal Cords
The larynx is comprised of the voice box which contains the vocal cords. Inflammation of the larynx is known as laryngitis. While it is commonly affected with an infection, another common although less well known cause is acid reflux. Here it is referred to as reflux laryngitis. The entrance of the larynx is guarded by a flap known as the epiglottis. It closes during swallowing to ensure that food or drink does not enter the lower airways. When inflamed or infected, it is known as epiglottitis.
- Hoarse voice or whispering voice
- Difficulty/painful swallowing
- Dry cough
- Dryness of the throat
- Tickling sensation in the throat
The trachea, commonly referred to as the windpipe, is the large single airway that leads from the larynx and terminates where it splits into the two main bronchi (left and right). Inflammation of the trachea is known as tracheitis. It is often bacterial in nature and tends to follow a viral infection of the upper airways. When the infection affects the larynx and trachea simultaneously, as in croup, then the condition is known as laryngotracheitis. If the bronchi is also infected simultaneously the it is known as laryngotracheobronchitis.
- Deep cough
- Dry and painful coughing
- Pain in the lower neck and behind the breastbone (sometimes)
- Difficulty breathing
- Abnormal breathing sounds like a stridor
Bronchi And Bronchioles
The bronchi and bronchioles are the terminal parts of the airways which leads to the lungs. As such the lungs are not considered as the airways although it is part of the respiratory system. The bronchitis is a common site of bacterial airway infections, often following viral infections like the seasonal flu. Inflammation of the bronchi is known as bronchitis and when the bronchioles are involves it is referred to as bronchiolitis.
These infections are generally considered to be serious due to its proximity to the lungs and small size. When inflamed, the swollen walls can drastically occlude the airways thereby limiting air flow. There are two main or primary bronchi (right and left) which leads to bronchioles, which in turn divides into terminal bronchioles. Finally these terminal bronchioles divides into respiratory bronchioles which are continuous with the alveolar ducts of the lungs.
- Productive cough
- Expectoration of mucus (sputum)
- Chest discomfort/pain
- Painful coughing
- Bloody cough (sometimes)
- Abnormal breathing sounds (wheezing)