Many people consider an upper respiratory tract infection (URI) and the common cold to be the same condition. However, this is not entirely true, as the common cold virus is just one of many infectious agents that can cause an upper respiratory infection.
More precisely describe an upper respiratory tract infection as any type of infection that affects the upper respiratory tract, that is, the nose, sinuses, and throat. Learn more about the symptoms, causes, and treatment of URIs.
Symptoms of upper respiratory infection
Typical URI symptoms can include a combination of one or more of the following symptoms:
- Nasal congestion
- Runny nose
- Throat pain
- Soft spot
- Muscle pain
Nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea can occur with a URI associated with an influenza infection. If the URI progresses to sinusitis , symptoms may include severe headache, facial pain, thick green or yellow nasal discharge, or toothache.
Ear infections can develop after an upper respiratory infection, especially in young children.
When to contact a healthcare provider
You should see your doctor to rule out strep throat if you have a severe sore throat and do not have the typical symptoms of the cold virus, such as a runny nose, sneezing, or cough. You are also more likely to have a bacterial infection that requires antibiotics if your symptoms last 10 days or more.
You should seek emergency medical attention if you or your child experience:
- shortness of breath, including abnormal breath sounds, rapid breathing, or blue lips or skin tone
- excessive drooling or inability to swallow
- extreme lethargy
- little or no diuresis
For a young child, low or no urine output means no wet diapers or very few wet diapers, especially if your baby has not eaten or drunk poorly, has had diarrhea, vomiting, or vomiting.
Parents should not hesitate to seek professional help for any symptoms that seem atypical or disturbing.
An upper respiratory infection can have one of the following causes:
- one of hundreds of common cold viruses (including rhinovirus, adenovirus, coronavirus, and Coxsackie virus)
- flu A and B
- parainfluenza virus
This list is not exhaustive, but includes some of the most common causes of URIs.
Are URIs Serious?
Most upper respiratory infections are caused by the cold virus and are not serious; most healthy people fight these infections on their own. However, there are some exceptions. Strep throat can have serious complications if it is not treated. If you have a severe sore throat, abdominal pain, no runny nose or cough, you may have a sore throat.
In rare cases, URIs can develop into more serious conditions, such as the epiglottis . This is more likely in young children. Viruses such as respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), a respiratory tract infection in young children, can be serious and lead to hospitalization, especially in infants.
In many cases, especially in adults, upper respiratory tract infections do not require a doctor's diagnosis unless symptoms persist, are severe, or alarming.
Most upper respiratory infections are caused by rhinoviruses and can be treated at home.
Diagnosing an upper respiratory tract infection is usually straightforward. Your healthcare provider will usually ask about your symptoms and other questions about your medical history, such as when you had symptoms and what could make them better or worse.
Your healthcare provider will perform a physical exam, during which he or she will examine the back of your throat and ears.
If strep throat is suspected, a rapid strep test or throat culture will be done. To do this, you need to take a swab from the back of your throat and check for strep bacteria. Occasionally, cultures of the nasal passages may be taken and tested for a bacterial infection. However, this is usually only done with a nasopharyngeal swab that is used to detect influenza and other pathogens (often done in an emergency setting).
In some cases, other tests may be ordered to rule out conditions that cause similar symptoms, such as allergies.
URIs caused by a virus can usually be managed at home. People with healthy immune systems can fight the virus in one to two weeks. There are many ways to help you recover and relieve bothersome symptoms.
Tips for treating upper respiratory infections
- Use a humidifier
- Try decongestants and throat lozenges
- Drink much liquid
- Take over-the-counter pain relievers
- Stay home and rest
- keep your head up
Decongestants and over-the-counter medications
The types of decongestants you can try include pseudoephedrine and oxymetazoline spray , which can be effective in relieving symptoms, but should not be used for more than three days in a row to avoid a condition called rebound congestion . Alternatively, you can also use saline nasal sprays or neti-pot nasal irrigation.
Decongestants and cough suppressants are generally not recommended for young children and babies because they have not been shown to be effective. Consult with your pediatrician before use. Although over-the-counter pain relievers such as ibuprofen and acetaminophen can help adults relieve sore throats, muscle aches, and headaches, children should not receive aspirin.
Over-the-counter medications for upper respiratory tract infections for children should be carefully discussed with your child's pediatrician and approved.
If possible, avoid going to work or school to avoid spreading the disease. Also, keeping your head up can help with a stuffy nose and earache.
Zinc and vitamin C
There is limited evidence that zinc and vitamin C supplementation can shorten the duration of the common cold. However, since zinc can interact with other medications, you should check with your pharmacy if you are taking anything other than zinc.
Antibiotics are generally prescribed only in certain circumstances when a bacterial infection is confirmed or strongly suspected. Overuse of antibiotics contributes to resistance to harmful bacteria, so your doctor may not automatically prescribe something for you.
If you have been prescribed an antibiotic, be sure to take it exactly as prescribed. Most bacterial infections begin to respond to the appropriate antibiotic within 24 hours. Antibiotics can cause stomach problems, including diarrhea. If you are having trouble with this, you can try eating yogurt with live active cultures and taking an antibiotic with food.
Good hygiene, such as washing your hands and covering your mouth and nose when coughing and sneezing, is a must when trying to prevent the spread of upper respiratory infections. Patients should stay home and avoid public places if possible.
It is also important to keep your immune system healthy by getting enough sleep, exercising, and eating a healthy diet. This will help your body fight the germs it comes in contact with and will also shorten the time it takes to fight the disease.
Stay up-to-date on vaccinations and get the flu shot every year, which is also an important factor when it comes to preventing bladder infections. Unfortunately, with the exception of influenza, vaccines have not been developed for most causes of URIs. However, the flu vaccine is still very important because it prevents hundreds of thousands of cases and thousands of deaths in Americans each year.
Get the word of drug information
An upper respiratory infection is a condition that can be caused by many factors, including the common cold, the flu, or a sore throat. It's important to be proactive in treating your symptoms, which may include using a humidifier or taking over-the-counter medications. Whenever possible, it is very important to rest and not do business at home. If your symptoms get worse, be sure to see your doctor. While most URIs are not cause for concern, symptoms can sometimes lead to more serious conditions.