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Respiratory illness

Learn what respiratory illness is, how to assess it and how to care for it.


Respiratory infections are caused by organisms such as viruses or bacteria that affect the airway and lungs. The organisms can be spread by coughing, sneezing or face-to-face contact.

Symptoms of respiratory illness include cough, runny or stuffy nose and sore throat, which may be caused by one of the following:

  • COVID-19
  • Influenza (flu)
  • Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV)
  • Rhinovirus and other viruses that cause the common cold

Assessing respiratory illness symptoms

If you are experiencing symptoms of respiratory illness, use the assessment tool to help decide if you should talk to someone about your symptoms or need additional care. You can complete an assessment for yourself or another person, like a child/youth or someone else you are caring for.

COVID-19 testing

Rapid testing at home

As of April 1, rapid antigen tests (RAT tests) will be the recommended COVID-19 test for all individuals with respiratory virus symptoms, including healthcare workers and workers in other high-risk settings.

Pending availability, free COVID-19 rapid testing kits can be picked up at these locations. Please note:

  • Hospitals are not distributing rapid test kits.
  • Rapid test kits cannot be used for travel.

Private testing

If you require COVID-19 testing outside of the public testing program (e.g. for travel), a variety of fee-for-service options are available through the private sector, including DynaLIFE Medical Labs, Numi Health, Equity Health Services and some pharmacies.

Self-care guide

Tips to manage mild symptoms at home

  • Stay home and get extra rest to help stop the virus from spreading to others and to help you feel better.
  • Drink plenty of fluids to replace those you lost and to make your throat feel better. Drink enough fluids to keep your urine pale yellow.
  • To help clear a stuffy nose, breathe moist air from a hot shower or a sink filled with hot water.
  • Apply a bit of petroleum jelly to the sore skin around your nose and lips. Always wash your hands after touching your face.
  • Raise your head with an extra pillow if coughing keeps you awake at night.
  • Try acetaminophen (such as Tylenol) to relieve body aches, headaches, and fever. Carefully read and follow all directions on the package. Cough and cold medicines may not be safe for young children or people who have certain health problems.
  • Don't smoke or breathe second-hand smoke, especially when you have an illness that can affect your breathing.
  • Cough medicine (cough suppressant) can help a dry, hacking cough. Ask your pharmacist which one is right for you. Children under 6 years should not use cough medicine.
  • To soothe a sore throat, suck on throat lozenges or plain, hard candy. Don't give these to children under 6 years.
  • Don't take antihistamines. They don't treat respiratory illness symptoms and could make nasal drainage thicker.
  • For comfort, you can sponge your body with lukewarm water to lower your fever. Lowering the fever will not make your symptoms go away but it can make you more comfortable.
  • For a stuffy nose, use salt water (saline) nose drops or rinses to loosen the dried mucus.
  • Follow the exact directions for taking any prescription medicines.
Current as of: March 31, 2023
Author: Alberta Health Services
Our work takes place on historical and contemporary Indigenous lands, including the territories of Treaty 6, Treaty 7 & Treaty 8 and the homeland of the Métis Nation of Alberta and 8 Métis Settlements. We also acknowledge the many Indigenous communities that have been forged in urban centres across Alberta.