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

An upper respiratory infection (URI) occurs when a virus or bacteria enters the body, usually through the mouth or nose. The infection may pass to another person through touch or a sneeze or cough.

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 three weeks. In some cases, these infections develop into more serious issues, such as sinus infections or pneumonia.

In this article, we explore ways to identify a URI, the possible causes, and the available treatments.

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A URI is an infection of the upper air passages. These include:

  • the larynx, the muscular organ containing the vocal cords
  • the nasal cavity, the space above and behind the nose
  • the nasal passages, or the nostrils
  • the pharynx, the cavity behind the nose and mouth

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.

A person may be more likely to develop a URI during “cold season,” in the fall and winter.

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

  • coughing
  • discomfort in the nasal passages
  • a mild fever
  • excess mucus
  • nasal congestion
  • pain or pressure within the face
  • a runny nose
  • a scratchy or sore throat
  • sneezing

Other symptoms can include:

Types of URI

There are several types, 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 1–2 weeks.

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

The symptoms usually last 2–3 weeks and resolve without treatment.

Laryngitis

This is inflammation of the vocal cords, or 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 disappear after 1–2 weeks.

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

If these occur, the person needs medical attention:

  • a high fever
  • severe respiratory distress
  • difficulty swallowing

COVID-19 is an illness that results from an infection with the virus SARS-CoV-2.

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.

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 own face, 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 daycare center
  • 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 disorder

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, contact a doctor. This is especially important if there is difficulty breathing.

Some over-the-counter 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)

Nasal decongestants and antihistamines may together be an effective treatment approach, according to 2019 research.

Treating a URI generally involves making the 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:

  • echinacea supplements
  • garlic, especially when raw
  • honey, especially in hot tea with ginger, lemon, or both
  • green tea
  • root ginger in hot water
  • essential oils, such as eucalyptus and peppermint

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

Here, find more cold and flu remedies.

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
  • their cough lasts more than 3 weeks
  • 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. But if any of the following issues develop, the person may need immediate care:

  • breathing problems
  • chest pain
  • confusion
  • a pale or bluish tinge to the lips, nail beds, or skin

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 healthy 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.

In most cases, URIs clear up within 1–2 weeks. While the symptoms may be uncomfortable, plenty of home care techniques and over-the-counter medications can help.

Most people recover from a URI within 2 weeks. However, if the symptoms get worse or are severe, contact a doctor.