What to Know About an Upper Respiratory Infection

Symptoms, Causes, Diagnosis, and Treatment

In This Article

Many people consider an upper respiratory infection (URI) and a common cold to be the same condition. This is not entirely true, however, since a cold virus is only one of many infectious agents that can cause an upper respiratory infection.

It is more accurate to describe an upper respiratory infection as any type of infection that affects the upper respiratory tract, namely the nose, sinuses, and throat. Learn more about the symptoms, causes, and treatment of URIs.

Symptoms of upper respiratory infections
Verywell/JR Bee

Symptoms

Typical symptoms of URIs may include a combination of one or more of the following symptoms:

  • Nasal congestion
  • Runny nose
  • Sneezing
  • Sore throat
  • Cough
  • Headache
  • Fever
  • Fatigue
  • Weakness
  • Sore muscles

Nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea may occur with a URI associated with influenza infection. If the URI progresses to sinusitis, symptoms may include a severe headache, face pain, or tooth pain.

It is possible to develop an ear infection after having an upper respiratory infection, and this is especially true in small children.

Causes

An upper respiratory infection is likely to have one of the following causes:

  • one of hundreds of common cold viruses (including rhinoviruses, adenoviruses, coronaviruses, and coxsackieviruses)
  • influenza A and B
  • parainfluenza virus
  • Bocavirus

This list is not comprehensive, but it does include some of the most common causes of URIs.

Streptococcus pneumoniae and Moraxella catarrhalis, while they don't cause URIs, can certainly cause sinusitis and ear infections.

Diagnosis

In many cases, especially in adults, upper respiratory infections do not require a diagnosis by a physician unless there are persistent, severe, or worrisome symptoms.

Most URIs are caused by rhinovirus and can be managed at home.

A diagnosis of an upper respiratory infection is usually not complicated. Your physician will usually ask you about your symptoms and other questions about your health history, such as when your symptoms started and what might make you feel better or worse.

Your doctor will perform a physical examination in which she will look at the back of your throat, and into your ears.

If strep throat is suspected, a rapid strep test or a throat culture will be obtained. This involves swabbing the back of your throat and then testing it for strep bacteria. Occasionally, cultures from the nasal passageways may be taken and tested for a bacterial infection. However, this is usually only done with a nasopharyngeal swab diagnosis used for the flu and other pathogens (often performed in urgent care).

In some cases, other tests may be ordered to rule out conditions that cause similar symptoms such as allergies.

Treatment

URIs caused by a virus can usually be managed at home. People with healthy immune systems can fight the virus off within a week or two. There are a variety of ways you can help your recovery and to treat bothersome symptoms.

Tips for Treating an Upper Respiratory Infection

  • Use a humidifier
  • Try decongestants and throat lozenges
  • Drink plenty of fluids
  • Take over-the-counter pain relievers
  • Stay home and rest
  • Keep your head elevated

Decongestants and OTC Drugs

Types of decongestants you might try include pseudoephedrine and oxymetazoline spray, which can be effective for managing symptoms but should not be used longer than 3 days in a row to avoid a condition called rebound congestion. In addition, you may also consider saline nasal sprays or nasal irrigation with a neti pot.

Decongestants and cough remedies are not usually recommended for small children and infants as they have not been proven effective. Talk to your pediatrician before using them. While over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers such as ibuprofen and acetaminophen can help adults ease a sore throat, muscle aches, and headaches, children should not be given aspirin.

Rest

If possible, do not attend work or school to avoid spreading illness. Additionally, keeping your head elevated can help with congestion and earaches.

Zinc and Vitamin C

There is limited evidence that taking zinc and vitamin C may 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 something in addition to zinc.

Antibiotics

Antibiotics are usually only prescribed in certain circumstances when a bacterial infection is confirmed or highly suspected. Overuse of antibiotics has contributed to the resistance of harmful bacteria, so your doctor may not automatically prescribe something for you.

If you are prescribed an antibiotic, make sure you take it exactly as prescribed. Most bacterial infections start to respond to an appropriate antibiotic within 24 hours. Antibiotics may cause stomach problems including diarrhea. If you have problems with this, you may try eating yogurt with live active cultures and taking the antibiotic with food.

Are URIs Serious?

Most upper respiratory infections are caused by a cold virus and are not serious—most healthy individuals will fight off these infections on their own. There are a few exceptions, however. Strep throat can have serious complications if left untreated. If your sore throat is severe, you have abdominal pain, and you lack a runny nose or a cough, you may have strep throat.

Rarely, URIs can progress to more serious conditions such as epiglottis. This is more likely in small children. Viruses such as Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)—a respiratory tract infection in small children—can be serious and lead to hospitalization, especially in small infants.

When to See a Doctor

You should see a doctor to rule out strep throat if your sore throat is severe and you don't have typical symptoms of a cold virus such as a runny nose, sneezing, or coughing. You are also more likely to experience a bacterial infection that requires antibiotics if your symptoms have lasted 10 or more days.

You should seek emergency medical attention if you or your child experiences:

  • difficulty breathing including abnormal noises while breathing, rapid breathing, or blue lips or skin tone
  • excessive drooling or inability to swallow
  • high fever
  • extreme lethargy
  • little or no urine output

For a small child, little or no urine output means no wet diapers or very few wet diapers, especially if your child has not been eating or drinking well, has had diarrhea, or has been or vomiting.

Parents should not hesitate to consult expert medical help for any symptoms that seem atypical or worrisome.

Remember, URI medications for kids should be discussed thoroughly with and approved by your child's pediatrician.

Prevention

Good hygiene such as hand washing and covering your mouth and nose when you cough and sneeze is imperative when it comes to preventing the spread of upper respiratory infections. People who are sick should stay at home and avoid public places whenever possible.

It is also important to keep your immune system healthy by getting plenty of sleep, exercise, and eating a healthy diet. This will help your body fight off the germs it comes into contact with and also shortens the amount of time it takes to fight off illness.

Staying up to date on vaccinations and getting an annual flu shot is also an important factor when it comes to preventing URIs. Unfortunately, except for influenza, vaccines for most causes of URI haven’t been developed. Still, the influenza vaccine remains very important, because it prevents hundreds of thousands of cases and thousands of deaths of Americans each year.

A Word From Verywell

An upper respiratory infection is a condition that could be caused by a variety of factors, including a cold, the flu, or strep throat. It is important that you are proactive in treating your symptoms, which could involve using a humidifier or taking over-the-counter medications. It's crucial to get rest and stay home from activities when possible. If your symptoms worsen, be sure to contact your doctor. Though most URIs are not a cause for concern, symptoms can sometimes lead to more severe conditions.

Was this page helpful?

Article Sources