Nasopharyngitis is inflammation of the throat, sinuses, and nasal passages. It describes a group of symptoms instead of a specific illness. Doctors may use "rhinitis" interchangeably with nasopharyngitis to refer to the common cold, which is caused by thousands of viruses. Bacterial infections in the sinus cavities, inner ear, and throat can also cause nasopharyngitis, as can fungal infections, though this is rare.
Most people are very familiar with the symptoms of nasopharyngitis: sneezing, coughing, sore throat, headache, and a runny or congested nose. Some people also experience post-nasal drip, watery or itchy eyes, a low-grade fever, tiredness, and muscle aches. These symptoms do not usually present a threat to long-term health but are irritating and can impact daily routine. Nasal secretions generally start as clear or white mucus and change to darker yellow or green discharge as symptoms progress. Symptoms generally fade after seven to 10 days.
The immune system causes many symptoms of nasopharyngitis, such as inflammation and swelling in the throat and nasal passages, while fighting off the infection. Inflammation signals the need for immune response, and in turn, causes the stuffed-up feeling that accompanies most colds. Mucus in the sinuses and airways protects tissues and keeps irritants out of the lungs, but the body's response triggers increased production to flush out pathogens. Nasal drip triggers coughing and sneezing to expel pathogens or irritants trapped in the mucus.
Several bacteria cause sinusitis or infection of the sinuses. The symptoms are similar to viral nasopharyngitis, although the former cause thicker and more frequent nasal-drip. Children are most susceptible to bacterial nasopharyngitis due to the immature structure of the middle ear. The distances between the throat, middle ear, and other structures in the face and neck are much shorter in children than adults. Bacteria travel those shorter distances easily and cause inner ear infections that may spread to the sinuses. Fungal infections almost always start in the sinuses, but this is only a risk for children and adults with compromised immune systems.
Children and babies are the most common prey of viral illnesses that cause nasopharyngitis, but even adults have an average of three to six colds each year. Children in school are at the highest risk of viral nasopharyngitis because they are in close contact with others almost every day. Teachers and other employees in schools have the highest risk among adults. Any activity that involves large numbers of people raises the participants' risk of catching or spreading infection, including public transit and office environments.
Antibiotics are only useful for treating nasopharyngitis caused by bacterial infections. Because most cases develop due to a virus, symptom management is the most common treatment. Over-the-counter remedies include decongestants, antihistamines, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, mucus thinners, lozenges, cough suppressants, nasal sprays, and vitamin supplements.
Read the instructions on medications carefully before administering them to children. Children's versions, such as lower doses or easy-to-swallow syrups are available in some instances, but other medications are not safe for children at all and should be cleared with a doctor. Health professionals often recommend vapor rubs or humidifiers. A humidifier heats water into steam to moisten the air, which helps prevent nasal passages from drying out.
Many people use home remedies to complement or replace medications in the treatment of nasopharyngitis. Hot showers act like humidifiers, helping to relieve congestion; holding the face over the steam from hot water can have a similar effect. Chicken soup and saltwater gargles are well-known cold remedies. Dissolve a teaspoon of salt in warm water and gargle for 30 to 40 seconds to relieve the pain and inflammation of a sore throat. Drinking a 1/2 cup of warm water with a teaspoon of honey can also relieve sore throats.
The most important step to avoiding nasopharyngitis is frequent hand washing. Viruses are passed from person-to-person through aerosol droplets in the air, but the main route of infection is direct transference. People cough or sneeze into their hands, then transfer the virus to writing utensils, doorknobs, and any other surface they touch. The next person transfers the virus from their hands to their eyes, mouth, or nose. Alcohol-based hand sanitizers can help prevent infection, as well.
Many common cold medications are not safe for people with kidney disorders or heart disease. Always read labels on over-the-counter medications carefully; most include warnings. People with any listed health conditions should ask a doctor before taking medications. Pregnant women and women nursing babies should also use caution and talk to a doctor about which medicine is safe to consume.
Nasopharyngitis can become a serious health problem and lead to pneumonia for people in frail health. Influenza viruses cause nasopharyngitis, which is often mistaken for the common cold in the early stages. Influenza is more serious than a cold. Consult a doctor for fevers over 100°F. People with COPD and other chronic respiratory disorders should consult a doctor when the symptoms first appear. Doctors often advise people with COPD and other respiratory illnesses to avoid cough suppressants, as they can increase the risk of chest infections.
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