Upper Airway Illnesses

Upper airway illnesses are the leading cause of sickness in children all over the world.


They result in many missed school days for the child, and many sleepless nights for the parent. Interestingly most parents do not understand why they occur, and that something can be done to prevent them as well as reduce the severity when they do occur.

What are upper airway illnesses?

The upper airway is the area between the nose and mouth and the larynx (voice box). When we breathe, air passes through this area first before getting into the lower airway (from larynx to the deepest parts of the lungs).

How does this area get sick?

The leading cause of sickness in this area is acute viral infection. This area protects the happy-doctor-2lower airway. This means, all the dirt and many germs that we take in from the air as we breathe are arrested in the upper airway so that what gets into the lower airway is “clean”. The lymph node collections in the upper airway include the tonsils and the adenoids. They act like police stations, where the body has a collection of the germ fighting cells. Occasionally the system succumbs to invective agents and sickness results.

What sickness is this?

Most common is what we call upper respiratory tract infection. Over 90 % of the time this is due to viruses. Commonly we talk of flu or influenza. Medically there are different classifications depending on the location and nature of infection. These include pharynx- pharyingitis, tonsils- tonsillitis, adenoids,-adenoiditis, sinus- sinusitis and larynx-laryngitis. In less than 10 % the resulting infection is bacterial. It is important to make this distinction because bacterial infections have to be treated with antibiotics.

What can I give my child when they have a viral upper airway infection?

The treatment shall be symptomatic. This means the child, or even adult, is given
medication to control symptoms such as fever, pains, sore throat, running or blocked nose, and their body has to fight off the virus on its own.

 Are there medicines for viruses?

Mostly no, there are a few viruses for which there is specific medicine. This is the main reason there is always major global concerns when there is an outbreak of a dangerous viral infection, such as swine flu or bird flu. If this were to spread out of control, millions would die.

 Why is it that it seems children less than six years are the ones that suffer from flu most?

It is because after birth children have their mothers’ antibodies (the soldiers that fight off


viral infections) for about 6 months. They also get antibodies from mother’s breast milk. After 6 months they loose these antibodies, and have to make their own. The body’s way of making antibodies involves exposure to the germs, especially viruses. The body then fights off the virus and makes antibodies in the process. Once made, these are stored for life, even if the virus is destroyed. This then means that the same virus can not affect that person twice. By about the age of six years, most children have made adequate antibodies to keep off most viruses.

What can I do to help my child keep off viral upper airway infections?

There are some infections that your child must get, as this is the process of acquiring immunity. However, we know that some factors increase the likelihood of having repeated or frequent viral infections. Such factors are diet that is poor in natural anti-oxidants. These


are special components of our food that work our antibodies and fighter cells to kill viruses. Anti-oxidants are found in fruits, vegetables and most natural foods. These should then

form the bulk of what your children eat. Being physically active also plays a part in enhancing natural immunity. There are special circumstances such as children with asthma. This is a genetic disorder affecting the upper and lower airway and if not well managed, will result in the child having recurrent infections of the upper airway. When well managed the child has a perfectly normal life.

Related links