A Guide to Upper Respiratory Infections, Types, Causes, and Treatments

Medically Reviewed By Megan Soliman, MD
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An upper respiratory infection (URI) is an infection that affects the nose, throat, and large upper airways. The common cold is a well-known type of URI. These infections spread by breathing in infected droplets when a person nearby coughs or sneezes, or by touching an infected surface, and then touching your eyes, nose, or mouth. A URI is not usually a serious illness and may resolve on its own after 7–10 days or as long as 3 weeks. Over-the-counter (OTC) medications, rest, and plenty of fluids can ease symptoms and speed recovery.

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This article discusses the different types of upper respiratory tract infections as well as their symptoms, causes, treatments, complications, and when to contact a doctor.

What is an upper respiratory infection?

A URI can be any infection affecting the upper respiratory tract. This area includes the nasal sinuses, the nasal passages, and the throat. Other names include a head cold or the common cold.

In contrast, a lower respiratory infection is an infection of the lower airway. This includes the upper bronchi (large air passages leading to the left and right lungs) and the lungs themselves or the smaller air passages within the lungs. Sometimes a lower respiratory infection may develop after someone has had a URI.

What are the types and symptoms of upper respiratory infections?

There are different types of URIs, and many of them have similar symptoms.

Symptoms can vary depending on the specific type of virus causing the infection and the location of the infection in the respiratory tract. Symptoms are often mild and appear 2–3 days after exposure to a virus.

Common cold

A common cold is the most frequent type of URI. Cold symptoms include:

Pharyngitis

Pharyngitis is also known as a sore throat. It causes pain, swelling, and irritation in the mucous membranes in the back of the throat. Depending on what caused the sore throat, other symptoms may occur, such as:

Epiglottitis

Epiglottitis is an infection of the epiglottis. The epiglottis is the flap of tissue that covers the windpipe to keep food from entering the lungs when you swallow. Most people with epiglottitis have a sore throat.

In adults and older children, the most common symptoms of epiglottitis are difficulty swallowing and drooling.

In young children, epiglottitis symptoms are typically hoarseness and difficulty breathing.

Croup

Croup respiratory illness that affects the larynx, trachea, larynx, and bronchi. It typically affects children age 5 and younger. Symptoms include:

Other types of upper respiratory infections

Several other illnesses are lumped into the category of URIs because they affect the upper respiratory tract and are typically caused by other URIs. These illnesses include:

There are other infections that cause respiratory symptoms but are not considered URIs. For example, acute bronchitis (often called a chest cold) affects the respiratory system but is considered a lower respiratory infection because it affects the lungs’ lower airways.

Influenza (flu) also affects the respiratory system, but it is a systemic illness that affects many parts of the body, not only the upper respiratory tract.

When to contact a doctor

URIs are often mild and may resolve on their own. Symptoms typically last 7–10 days or persist as long as 3 weeks.

Call a doctor if URI symptoms are not getting better, or if you have a chronic disease or compromised immune system.

Symptoms that might indicate a serious or life threatening condition

In some cases, URIs can lead to serious and sometimes life threatening conditions, such as pneumonia. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) for a URI with the following symptoms:

  • having a high fever, higher than 101°F (38°C)
  • experiencing difficulty breathing or swallowing
  • having pale or bluish coloration of the lips, skin, or fingernails
  • retracting of the muscles in the neck or between the ribs when breathing
  • having uncontrollable shaking chills
  • experiencing lethargy or unresponsiveness

What causes an upper respiratory infection?

URIs are usually caused by viruses, but they can also be caused by bacteria. For a common cold, symptoms can begin as early as 10–12 hours after infection.

The most common ways people contract URIs include airborne transmission of infected droplets or direct contact with an infected surface. For example, this might occur when a person with a URI sneezes and you breathe in those droplets, or if you touch an infected surface and then touch your eyes, nose, or mouth.

The more common viruses include:

  • adenovirus
  • coronavirus
  • enterovirus
  • parainfluenza virus
  • respiratory syncytial virus
  • rhinovirus

Being wet or cold does not cause respiratory infections, although these conditions may lower the body’s resistance to infection.

What are the risk factors for an upper respiratory infection?

Anyone can get a URI, but some people have a higher risk of developing URIs.

Adults typically have about two to three colds every year, but young children have an average of six to eight colds annually.

Risk factors for a URI or for developing complications include:

  • regular close contact with children in school or daycare
  • being very young
  • chronic disease, such as asthma or allergies
  • smoking
  • compromised immune system
  • exposure to a person with a URI
  • frequently touching the eyes, nose, or mouth, especially without washing your hands

How do you reduce your risk of an upper respiratory infection?

You can lower your risk of catching a URI by:

  • avoiding contact with a person who has a URI
  • avoiding touching your eyes, nose, and mouth
  • frequently cleaning high-touch surfaces such as counters, keyboards, and doorknobs
  • washing hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds

How is an upper respiratory infection treated?

There is no cure for URIs caused by viruses, but you can treat your symptoms while your body fights the infection.

OTC medication precautions

Children under age 4 should not use cold or cough medications because of the risk of serious side effects.

People with a URI, particularly children under age 18, should not use aspirin or products that contain aspirin because of the risk of developing a rare but life threatening condition called Reye syndrome.

OTC pain relievers may worsen asthma and other health conditions, so check with your doctor before taking them.

Treating viral upper respiratory infections

You can help speed recovery and ease symptoms by getting plenty of rest, drinking extra fluids, or taking OTC pain relievers, cold medications, or cough drops. Antibiotics cannot treat a viral infection.

Treating bacterial upper respiratory infections

Antibiotics are usually needed to treat a bacterial upper respiratory tract infection. OTC pain relievers and cold medications along with extra fluids and rest can help ease symptoms and speed recovery.

What are the potential complications of an upper respiratory infection?

URIs usually do not cause complications, but in some people, a URI can lower the body’s immune defenses and lead to more serious infections. People most at risk for complications include:

  • infants and toddlers
  • older adults
  • people who have a compromised immune system
  • people who have a chronic disease, such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, diabetes, or heart disease

Complications of URIs include:

Frequently asked questions

Here are some questions people commonly ask about URIs.

How long do upper respiratory infections last?

Generally, URIs caused by viruses will get better on their own after 7–10 days. Bacterial URIs will begin to get better after antibiotic treatment.

Are upper respiratory infections contagious?

URIs are highly contagious. They can be spread by touching surfaces with germs and then touching your eyes, nose, or mouth, or by breathing in germs when someone nearby coughs or sneezes.

Is COVID-19 considered an upper respiratory infection? 

Mild cases of COVID-19 typically are limited to the upper respiratory tract. The lower respiratory tract may become infected in moderate cases of COVID-19.

Summary

While URIs are common and usually not serious illnesses, sometimes complications can arise. If you have been treating the infection at home but your symptoms do not improve after a week or two, or if they get worse, call your doctor. Sometimes URIs can cause more serious health complications, which may need a doctor’s treatment.

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Medical Reviewer: Megan Soliman, MD
Last Review Date: 2022 Jun 29
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.