Upper respiratory infections

An upper respiratory infection (URI) is a contagious infection of your upper respiratory tract, caused by bacteria or a virus.

The most common URI? The common cold

The most common upper respiratory infection is a cold, which often presents with a sore throat. A cold is a different condition than influenza and pneumonia, which are lower respiratory tract illnesses.

URIs might require medical treatment

A URI is caused when a virus or bacteria invades the mucus membranes of your upper respiratory tract, which consists of the sinuses, nasal passages, pharynx and larynx. This causes an infection that may require medical treatment. URIs are extremely common, so your primary care provider will know just what to do to help.

Causes of URIs

A URI can be caused by a virus or bacteria, which enter your airway through your nose or mouth and incubate for varying amounts of time before causing an infection. Most URIs are viral infections, such as the rhinovirus, which causes the common cold. They are most common in the fall and winter, but they can happen at any time.

Possible causes of upper respiratory infections include:

Viruses

  • Adenovirus.
  • Coxsackievirus.
  • Epstein-Barr virus.
  • Human metapneumovirus.
  • Parainfluenza virus.
  • Respiratory syncytial virus.
  • Rhinovirus.
  • Thinovirus.

Bacteria

  • Chlamydia (Chlamydia pneumoniae).
  • Diphtheria (Corynebacterium diphtheriae).
  • Gonorrhea(Neisseria gonorrhoeae).
  • Group A beta-hemolytic streptococci, which causes strep throat.
  • Group C beta-hemolytic streptococci.
  • Whooping cough (pertussis).

To avoid catching any of these viruses or bacteria, avoid close contact with people in public or who you know are infected. Be mindful to practice good hygiene – especially washing your hands frequently for at least 20 seconds at a time.

Symptoms of a URI

Common symptoms

You may have a URI if you are experiencing any of these symptoms:

  • Coughing.
  • Fever.
  • Nasal congestion and trouble breathing through your nose.
  • Runny nose.
  • Sore or scratchy throat and pain when swallowing.
  • Sneezing.

These symptoms usually last between a few days to 2 weeks.

Less common symptoms

Other less common symptoms include:

  • Bad breath.
  • Body aches.
  • Diarrhea.
  • Headache.
  • Itchy and watery eyes (conjunctivitis).
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Sinus pain.
  • Nausea.
  • Vomiting.


When to see your provider

See your primary care provider for diagnosis and treatment if any of these symptoms become severe or last longer than 14 days.


Man talking to provider

Common types of upper respiratory infections

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If you have a URI, your primary care provider may diagnose it according to the specific area of infection, such as:

  • Common cold (nasopharyngitis). Inflammation of the nares, pharynx, hypopharynx, uvula and tonsils.
  • Epiglottitis. Inflammation of the upper portion of the larynx or the epiglottis.
  • Laryngitis. Inflammation of the larynx.
  • Pharyngitis. Inflammation of the pharynx, uvula and tonsils.
  • Rhinitis. Inflammation of the nasal cavity.
  • Sinus infection, sinusitis or rhinosinusitis. Inflammation of the sinuses located around the nose.
  • Tracheitis (tracheobronchitis). Inflammation of the trachea that can quickly lead to acute bronchitis.

Treating a URI

Your primary care provider will develop the best treatment plan for your type of URI and symptoms.

At-home remedies

Because most URIs are viral infections and are self-limited, you may only need at-home remedies to feel better until the virus passes:

  • Adjust the inside temperature and humidity. Keep it warm and use a cool mist humidifier or vaporizer to help ease congestion and coughing.
  • Eat a healthy diet. Try chicken soup and other warm fluids to soothe your throat and loosen congestion.
  • Hydrate. Water, juice, clear broth or warm lemon water can help, and you should avoid caffeine and alcohol.
  • Rest. Stay home from work or school to rest and reduce the chances you’ll infect others.
  • Soothe your throat. Try lozenges or a salt water gargle: one-half teaspoon of salt in a 4 to 8ounce glass of warm water.
  • Take over-the-counter (OTC) cold and cough medications. Decongestants such as pseudoephedrine (Sudafed), Actifed oral or phenylephrine (Neo-Synephrine nasal) can relieve nasal congestion; antihistamines and pain relievers might offer other symptom relief.
  • Use saline nasal drops. They can help relieve nasal congestion.

Other medications

Your provider may also prescribe steroids such as dexamethasone (Decadron) and prednisone (orally or nasally) to reduce inflammation of your airway passage and decrease swelling and congestion.

Your doctor might prescribe antibiotics in the case of a bacterial infection such as strep throat, bacterial sinusitis or epiglottitis, but this is not always recommended. In rare cases of complicated sinus infection, a surgical procedure may be recommended to help with a compromised airway and difficulty breathing, formation of abscesses behind the throat, or abscess formation of the tonsils (peritonsillar abscess).

Because most URIs are viral in nature, treatment usually focuses on relieving symptoms to help you feel better until the virus runs its course and you return to feeling normal.

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