An upper respiratory infection, or the common cold, is an infection that affects the nasal passages and throat. Treatment is usually simple, unless a person also has a chronic respiratory condition such as asthma.
For an upper respiratory infection (URI) to occur, a virus enters the body, usually through the mouth or nose. A person may transmit it through touch, or by sneezing and coughing.
Any place where people gather in an enclosed space, such as a classroom, office, or home, can be a high-risk area for the spread of URIs.
Typically, a URI lasts anywhere between 3 and 14 days. In some cases, URIs can develop into more serious conditions, such as sinus infections or pneumonia.
In this article, we look at how to identify a URI, its potential causes, and the available treatments.
A URI is an infection that affects the upper air passages, including:
- the larynx, which is the muscular organ containing the vocal cords
- the nasal cavity, which is the space above and behind the nose
- the nasal passages, or the nostrils
- the pharynx, which is the cavity behind the nose and mouth
Adults get between two and three URIs per year. Children, especially young children, may experience more because their immune system is still developing.
Fall and winter are the most common times of year to experience a URI.
The most common symptoms of a URI include:
- discomfort in the nasal passages
- mild fever, which is more common in children
- excess mucus
- nasal congestion
- pain or pressure behind the face
- a runny nose
- a scratchy or sore throat
Less common symptoms can include:
The causes of URIs are almost always viral. Droplets of infected saliva and mucus spray out into the air when a person sneezes or coughs. Other people may breathe them in, or they can land on surfaces that others touch.
If another person then puts their hand near their mouth, they may get an infection.
There are more than 200 common cold viruses that cause URIs.
Other risk factors include:
- damage to the airways or nasal cavity
- not washing the hands frequently
- contact with groups of children
- crowded places, such as airplanes and buses
- having an autoimmune disorder
- removal of adenoids or tonsils, which are part of the immune system
- smoking and secondhand smoke
- spending time in the hospital or in a care center
People can usually self-diagnose a URI at home.
If a person has any doubts about whether they have a URI or more serious condition, they should speak to a doctor.
URIs are self-limiting, which means that they usually resolve without any medical treatment.
However, URIs can sometimes lead to other illnesses, or they may have similar initial symptoms to other conditions, including:
If symptoms do not resolve, or they get worse over time instead of better, it is best to speak with a doctor.
Treatment for a URI generally involves limiting discomfort. The following things can help reduce the severity or duration of the symptoms:
- applying petroleum jelly to sore areas, which may include the lips and nostrils
- avoiding smoky or fume-filled areas
- avoiding steep temperature changes
- drinking plenty of fluids
- increasing indoor humidity
- resting as much as possible
- using soft tissues when blowing the nose
Some over-the-counter medicines may also help adults with URI symptoms. These include:
- brompheniramine (Bromfed)
- chlorpheniramine (Chlor-Trimeton)
- diphenhydramine (Benadryl)
- acetaminophen (Tylenol)
- ibuprofen (Advil)
- oxymetazoline (Afrin)
- phenylephrine (Sudafed PE)
- pseudoephedrine (Sudafed)
Some people use home remedies to help relieve URI symptoms. Home remedies include:
While most URIs will resolve without medical attention, they may get progressively worse. It is best to see a doctor if:
- breathing becomes difficult
- a fever lasts more than 3 days
- the URI impacts an existing condition
- the symptoms lasts more than 2 weeks
- the lips turn blue
- swallowing becomes difficult
- symptoms become worse over time
- the URI recurs soon after going away
There is no certain way to avoid getting a URI. These infections are particularly common during the winter and almost unavoidable if a person spends time with other people indoors.
There are steps that a person can take to reduce the risk, however. These are especially helpful during the fall and winter months. Preventive steps include:
- avoiding cigarette smoke
- avoiding crowded and enclosed spaces
- avoiding sharing drinking glasses and utensils
- cleaning and disinfecting areas that other people touch, such as shared keyboards
- covering the mouth and nose when sneezing and coughing
- eating a healthful diet
- washing the hands frequently
- exercising regularly
In most cases, a URI clears up without treatment. While the symptoms may be uncomfortable, there are plenty of simple measures to help.
Most people recover from a URI within 2 weeks. However, if symptoms get worse or are severe, it is best to speak to a doctor for a proper diagnosis.