An upper respiratory infection (URI) affects the nasal passages and throat. The treatment is usually simple unless a person also has a chronic respiratory condition, such as asthma.

A URI occurs when a virus or bacteria enter the body, usually through the mouth or nose. The infection may pass to another person through touch or a sneeze or cough.

Adults tend to get between two and three URIs per year. Children, especially young children, may have more of these infections, because their immune systems are still developing.

Also, children who spend lots of time around other kids may be more prone to these infections, because children are less likely than adults to wash their hands after sneezing or wipe their noses when they need to.

Enclosed spaces where people gather, such as classrooms, offices, and homes, can be high risk areas for the spread of URIs.

Typically, a URI lasts 7–10 days, and sometimes, up to 3 weeks. In some cases, these infections develop into more serious issues, such as sinus infections or pneumonia.

This article explores how to identify a URI, the possible causes, how it spreads, and the available treatments.

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While different types of URI can cause different symptoms, some common symptoms include:

Other symptoms can include:

On average, symptoms start 1–3 days after an individual comes into contact with a person with the infection and then last 7–10 days.

Types of URI

Several types of URI exist, and doctors classify them according to the part of the respiratory tract that they mainly affect. Types of URI include:

The common cold

Many viruses can cause a cold. Symptoms may include:

  • a blocked or runny nose
  • a sore throat
  • headaches
  • muscle aches
  • coughing and sneezing
  • changes in taste and smell
  • a fever
  • pressure in the ears and face

The symptoms usually go away with home treatment after 10–14 days.

Sinusitis

Sinusitis is inflammation of the sinuses, and it may stem from an infection in another part of the respiratory system.

The inflammation can lead to increased mucus production and blocked sinuses, due to difficulty draining.

Some symptoms of sinusitis are:

  • pain around the eyes, cheeks, or forehead
  • sinus pressure and tenderness
  • nasal discharge
  • a blocked nose
  • a reduced sense of smell
  • a fever
  • bad breath

A person should contact a doctor if their symptoms last for longer than 10 days without improvement.

Laryngitis

This is inflammation of the vocal cords, also known as the larynx.

Some common symptoms include:

  • a hoarse voice or loss of voice
  • a persistent cough and irritation in the throat
  • a sore throat

The symptoms usually last about 7–10 days.

Pharyngitis

Pharyngitis is inflammation of the mucous membranes that line the pharynx, or back of the throat. It often occurs with URIs.

Some common symptoms of pharyngitis are:

  • a sore or scratchy throat
  • inflammation
  • fever
  • headache
  • difficulty swallowing

A doctor may find that there are ulcers on the walls of the throat.

More serious symptoms

An individual needs medical attention if the following occur:

URIs may resolve without treatment, or the symptoms may be mild and easy to treat at home.

However, these infections can cause more serious symptoms or complications that need professional care.

Getting a diagnosis may be important, as the initial symptoms can resemble those of other illnesses, such as:

If any symptoms do not resolve with home care or if they get worse, a person should contact a doctor. This is especially important if they experience difficulty breathing.

Some over-the-counter (OTC) medicines may help adults with URI symptoms. These include:

Pain relief medication

Decongestants

  • oxymetazoline (Afrin)
  • phenylephrine (Sudafed PE)
  • pseudoephedrine (Sudafed)

Antihistamines

  • brompheniramine (Bromfed)
  • chlorpheniramine (Chlor-Trimeton)
  • diphenhydramine (Benadryl)

According to a 2019 study, nasal decongestants and antihistamines may together be an effective treatment approach. The study authors also note that children under the age of 4 should not use cold medication.

Treating a URI generally involves making a person more comfortable by relieving their symptoms. Some people find that home remedies help.

There is not enough conclusive evidence to show whether these remedies work, but some options include:

Other home care strategies include:

  • applying petroleum jelly to sore or raw areas, such as the lips and nostrils
  • avoiding smoky areas
  • avoiding significant changes in temperature
  • drinking plenty of fluids
  • increasing indoor humidity levels
  • resting as much as necessary
  • using soft tissues when blowing the nose

Find more cold and flu remedies here.

A URI is contagious. It spreads through tiny droplets that a person with an infection exhales.

Individuals may contract the illness through breathing in an uncovered cough or sneeze or via hand-to-hand contact with unwashed hands.

A person who touches their hands to their eyes, mouth, or nose can introduce the virus to their system.

The body has several natural defenses against URIs:

  • the hair lining, which traps infectious agents
  • the cells in the lower airways, which help transport pathogens back to the pharynx
  • the mucus, which traps infectious agents
  • the angle between the pharynx and nose, which helps prevent pathogens from falling into the airways

Learn eight ways to avoid the flu and the common cold here.

According to the American Lung Association, certain bacteria and viruses responsible for URIs can lead to pneumonia.

The bacteria most often responsible for pneumonia are Streptococcus pneumoniae.

Common viruses that can cause pneumonia include influenza and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).

Influenza can be fatal, particularly for people living with preexisting conditions. RSV is the most common form of viral pneumonia, and typically, it is not as serious as bacterial pneumonia.

Therefore, it is beneficial for a person to receive both the influenza vaccine and the pneumonia vaccine. Doing so can decrease the risk of transmission of these conditions and reduce the severity of disease in those who get sick.

A virus known as SARS-CoV-2 causes COVID-19.

It can cause a wide variety of symptoms. Some, such as a sore throat and a cough, develop in the upper respiratory tract.

Learn to differentiate between COVID-19, a cold, and the flu here.

Viruses and bacteria can cause URIs. When a person with a URI sneezes or coughs, droplets of saliva and mucus that contain the pathogen spray into the air. Other people may breathe the droplets in, or they can land on surfaces that others touch.

If a person touches a contaminated surface and then their nose, eyes, or mouth, they may develop the infection.

Other risk factors for URIs include:

  • infrequent hand washing
  • smoke or secondhand smoke
  • contact with groups of children, for example, in a day care center or school
  • time in crowded places, such as airplanes and buses
  • time in clinics, hospitals, or care centers
  • stress and sleep problems
  • damage to the airways or nasal cavity
  • the removal of the adenoids or tonsils, which are parts of the immune system
  • an autoimmune condition

While most URIs resolve without medical attention, complications can arise, some of which can be severe.

A person should receive medical guidance if they have a URI and:

  • their symptoms keep getting worse
  • they cough up blood or bloody mucus
  • fever that lasts more than 4 days
  • they are over 65
  • they are pregnant
  • they have a weakened immune system
  • they have any long-term health condition

When to seek help for COVID-19

Anyone who has or may have COVID-19 should stay at home and rest. However, if any of the following issues develop, the person may need immediate care:

If any of the above arise, call 911 or take the person to a local emergency facility. Call ahead to let them know that the person arriving may have COVID-19.

It is not always possible to prevent a URI, but taking the following precautions can help:

  • covering the mouth and nose when sneezing and coughing
  • avoiding cigarette smoke
  • avoiding crowded, enclosed spaces when possible
  • avoiding sharing drinking glasses and utensils
  • cleaning and disinfecting objects that others frequently touch, such as shared keyboards
  • having a balanced diet
  • washing the hands frequently
  • exercising regularly

When spending time in a crowded space is unavoidable, increasing the ventilation, such as by opening a window on a packed bus, may help.

URIs may cause similar symptoms, such as coughing, excess mucus, nasal congestion, a runny nose, and a sore throat.

Each type of URI may cause characteristic symptoms, as well. Doctors classify these infections based on their location in the respiratory tract.

Most people recover from a URI within 2 weeks with or without OTC or home treatments. However, if the symptoms get worse or are severe, a person should contact a doctor.