A respiratory infection is an inflammation of the mucous membranes in your respiratory system (nose, mouth and airways) caused by a virus or bacteria. The air you breathe can contain all sorts of pathogens, including viruses and bacteria – such as Legionella or pneumococci bacteria. Common viruses that cause respiratory infections include the influenza virus (flu), the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) and the respiratory syncytial virus (RSV infections).


The most common symptoms that indicate a respiratory infection are coughing, sneezing, sore throat and nasal cold. Symptoms may also include fever, muscle pain, headache or tiredness. If you have a respiratory infection, you can infect others around you. People in vulnerable health can become seriously ill from a respiratory infection.

What to do if you have symptoms?

If you develop symptoms that could indicate a respiratory infection, follow these recommendations. By doing so, you can help prevent respiratory viruses from spreading, and protect people in vulnerable health.

  1. Stay home if you are ill.
  2. If your symptoms are mild, talk to your employer about whether you can work from home.
  3. Avoid contact with people who could become seriously ill from a respiratory infection. If you cannot avoid contact (for example because you are providing informal care), wear a face mask that covers the mouth and nose.
  4. Cough and sneeze into your elbow. Wash your hands often and thoroughly, and use soap and water.
  5. Ensure a good flow of fresh air in indoor spaces.

Even if you do not have symptoms, it is important to cough and sneeze into your elbow and regularly wash your hands with soap and water.


Vaccines have been developed against some bacteria and viruses that can cause respiratory infections. These vaccines protect people from serious illness. Examples include the seasonal flu vaccine, the series of COVID-19 vaccinations, the pneumococcal vaccination and the whooping cough vaccination.

Monitoring respiratory infections

Among other activities, RIVM researches and monitors the development and spread of various viruses and bacteria that can cause respiratory infections. This form of surveillance is done in close collaboration with other research institutes.