Upper Vs Lower Respiratory System: Upper vs Lower Respiratory Tract Infections

Upper Respiratory System vs. Lower Respiratory System

There are two parts to our respiratory system: 1) the upper respiratory system and 2) the lower respiratory system. We will explain the differences between the upper and lower respiratory system and the differences between upper respiratory tract infections and lower respiratory tract infections.

Diaphragm Breathing: Respiratory System Lungs Breathing Animation

What are the differences between the upper and lower respiratory system?

Our Upper Respiratory System:

Our upper respiratory system contains  the following structures: nose/nostrils, nasal cavity, mouth, throat or pharynx, and larynx above the vocal folds. The main function of the upper respiratory system is to filter, warm, and humidify the air. Other functions include providing a clear patent airway for air to enter and exit the lungs through nose and mouth.

Our Lower Respiratory System:

Our lower respiratory system contains the following structures: larynx below the vocal folds, trachea or windpipe, lungs, bronchi, bronchioles, alveoli, and diaphragm. The main function of the lower respiratory system is to provide gas exchange for oxygen and carbon dioxide.

[To learn more about the general functions of the respiratory system and lungs, read our continued article here –> ]

Respiratory System Anatomy Picture Labeled Organs

Quick and Easy Memory Learning Aid for Upper and Lower Respiratory System

How can I tell where the upper respiratory tract ends and where the lower respiratory tract begins? What separates the upper and lower respiratory tract? What are some memory learning aids to help me remember the regional differences of the upper and lower respiratory system?

The simplest way to remember where the lower respiratory system begins is the larynx. Memory Aid: Lower Respiratory System = Larynx. Anything generally below the larynx is the lower respiratory tract, and anything above the larynx, specifically the vocal folds, is the upper respiratory tract.

Upper Respiratory Tract Infection vs. Lower Respiratory Tract Infection

What are the differences between upper respiratory tract infections and lower respiratory tract infections?

Upper Respiratory Tract Infections:

Just as it sounds, upper respiratory tract infections occur in the upper respiratory system: nose/nostrils, nasal cavity, mouth, throat or pharynx, and larynx above the vocal folds.

Examples of upper respiratory tract infections include sinusitis (also known as a sinus infection) and laryngitis (inflammation of the larynx), among many.

Lower Respiratory Tract Infections:

Lower respiratory tract infections occur in the lower respiratory system’s anatomical structures and organs, including the larynx below the vocal folds, trachea or windpipe, lungs, bronchi, bronchioles, alveoli, and diaphragm.

Examples of lower respiratory tract infections include pneumonia (lung infection), bronchitis (airways infection in the bronchis), and tuberculosis (an infectious bacteria lung disease), among many.

Is the flu an Upper or Lower Respiratory Tract Infection?

The flu can affect both the upper respiratory system and lower respiratory system, depending on the severity of the patient’s symptoms. For example, if the symptoms are ony a sore throat, runny nose, and sneezing, then the flu is affecting the upper respiratory tract. Coughing, wheezing, and chest tightness may indicate a lower respiratory tract infection.

Check out our other Related respiratory system lessons!

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Works Cited

  1. National Health Services United Kingdom. Respiratory Tract Infection. https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/respiratory-tract-infection/
  2. Carver College of Medicine. Upper/Lower Respiratory Tract Infections. https://medicine.uiowa.edu/familymedicine/education/medical-student-education/m3-preceptorship/upperlower-respiratory-tract-infections
  3. First AID USMLE Respiratory System 2019.

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