The Role of Physiotherapy in the Management of Respiratory Tract Infections (RTIs)

The respiratory tract system is made up of your airway that leads into your lungs, and its primary function is to allow breathing through gaseous exchange. It is responsible for bringing oxygen into our bodies (inhalation) and sending carbon dioxide out of our bodies (exhalation).

The respiratory tract starts from the nose, leads to the large and small windpipes, and reaches the lungs. Respiratory tract infections may affect the organs and tissues along the airway and in the lungs. This can cause difficulty breathing due to restricted gaseous exchange.

What is the difference?

This system is divided into upper and lower respiratory systems. The most common respiratory tract infections include influenza, pneumonia, asthma, bronchitis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and lung cancer.

Lower respiratory tract infections differ from upper respiratory tract infections by the area of the respiratory tract they affect. Lower respiratory tract infections involve the airways below the larynx, while upper respiratory tract infections occur in the structures in the larynx or above.

What causes these infections?

Different types of viruses cause the common cold. These are highly contagious and can be spread from person to person by coughing, sneezing or touching hands with an infected person.

People with upper respiratory tract infections will feel symptoms mainly above the neck, such as sneezing, headaches, and sore throats. They may also experience body aches, especially if they have a fever. The lower respiratory tract infection may present with a dry cough, low fever, stuffed or runny nose, mild sore throat and difficulty breathing. Severe cough that produces phlegm and chest pains.

Medical Treatment

Recovery time for a lower respiratory tract infection varies from person to person.

  • Paracetamol, over-the-counter medicine for bodily aches and headaches.
  • Non-pharmacological treatment can include rest, increased fluid intake, increased vitamin C intake and physiotherapy treatment.

NB: Vaccinations are contra-indicated during high-grade fever.

What role does physiotherapy play?

Respiratory (chest) physiotherapy plays a vital role in early mobilisation, exercising, and muscle retraining for patients across the spectrum of these conditions.

 Chest physiotherapy aims to prevent secondary complications, decrease work of breathing (laboured breathing pattern), improve exercise tolerance, and clear airways of secretions (phlegm).

 Physiotherapists can use these treatment techniques to clear and maintain the airway of secretions:

  • Manual sinus drainage
  • Coughing techniques (especially in paediatrics)
  • Manual chest techniques (percussions and vibrations)
  • Postural drainage, different positions target a certain lung segment.
  • Improve exercise tolerance, e.g., aerobic exercises.
  • Breathing techniques include deep breathing, diaphragmatic breathing, and force expiratory techniques.
  • Patient and family education depends on each person’s presentation.