What is an upper respiratory infection?
An upper respiratory infection results in inflammation in the nose, throat, sinuses, larynx and pharynx often due to cold viruses. You may need to see a doctor for an upper respiratory infection if you develop a fever, pain, sore throat or symptoms of a bacterial infection.
An upper respiratory infection is inflammation in the sinuses, nose, throat, larynx, and pharynx most often caused by the common cold viruses. It may also be caused by a bacterial infection or an influenza virus.
Every year millions of Americans get sick with an upper respiratory infection. It accounts for 20 million missed days of school and more than 20 million lost days of work.
Most of the time, an upper respiratory infection can be managed at home, but there may be times when you need to see the doctor.
Signs of an upper respiratory infection
Upper respiratory infections are common in children and adults. Some signs and symptoms include:
Upper respiratory infections may also have other symptoms, usually caused by specific viruses. These may include:
Signs of upper respiratory infection in babies
Symptoms of an upper respiratory infection in a baby may also include:
- Trouble sleeping
Causes of upper respiratory infection
Upper respiratory infections are most often caused by the common cold viruses. These include:
Sometimes an infection is also caused by:
Influenza A and B viruses
Influenza viruses are often called the “stomach flu,” but stomach symptoms like vomiting and diarrhea aren’t typical symptoms, though they are more common in babies and children than adults. True influenza viruses primarily cause upper respiratory symptoms like a sore throat and coughing, and congestion or a runny nose.
The flu viruses spread mostly by droplets when people with the flu talk, cough, or sneeze. If these droplets enter your mouth or nose, you can become infected with the flu virus.
S. pyogenes is a Group A streptococcus bacteria that causes an infection in your throat and tonsils. This is often called strep throat. It usually causes sudden sore throat, painful swallowing, swollen tonsils, red spots on the roof of your mouth, swollen lymph nodes, and fever.
Headache, upper stomach pain, nausea, or vomiting are also common symptoms, especially in children.
Strep throat bacteria is spread by droplets from coughing or sneezing. If you breathe in those droplets, drink from the same glass or eat from the same plate as people who have strep throat, or touch something with droplets and then touch your mouth or nose, you may develop an infection.
If you have a sore throat, fever, and pain with upper stomach pain or abdominal pain, you should visit your doctor as you may have strep throat. Symptoms of this upper respiratory infection usually do not include cough, hoarseness, pink eye, or runny nose.
People with the novel coronavirus disease called COVID-19 have reported a wide variety of symptoms. An upper respiratory infection is part of the symptoms, including:
- Muscle aches
- Sore throat
- Runny nose
- Shortness of breath
- New loss of taste or smell
COVID-19 may also cause gastrointestinal symptoms like upper stomach pain, abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea.
Diagnosing upper respiratory infection
You may recognize most symptoms of an upper respiratory infection on your own, which may not need to be tested by a doctor. Symptoms of a common cold are often self-managed, but you may need to see your doctor for tests.
Your doctor will take your list of symptoms and your personal and medical history. They may physically examine your throat, tonsils, ears, nose, and lymph nodes to check for redness, swelling, and signs of infection. They may take your temperature and check your blood pressure and pulse.
Your doctor may also swab your throat and nose for a sample of your cells. The sample may be tested to determine the type of bacteria or virus you have. A blood test, x-ray, or a urinalysis may also be done to rule out other issues or check for complications.
Treatments for upper respiratory infection
You can manage symptoms of upper respiratory infections caused by the common cold viruses and flu with over-the-counter medications like fever reducers and decongestant medications. You can also combine other treatments like:
- Drinking plenty of water
- Drinking hot water with lemon and honey
- Raising your head while sleeping
- Gargling with warm salt water
If you have strep throat, or you develop an ear or sinus infection as the bacteria spreads, your doctor will prescribe antibiotics. Make sure to take them for the length of time indicated.
If you get sick with the flu, your doctor may recommend antiviral drugs. Your doctor may also recommend an influenza vaccine for future prevention.
Sometimes it’s hard to tell the symptoms of the common cold from the flu or COVID-19. They are contagious diseases and testing is recommended to determine the cause of your illness.
If you have a new and worsening cough, high fever, and loss or change of sense of smell and taste, you may have COVID-19. Speak to your doctor or seek medical guidelines from your local government on what to do.
Medically Reviewed on 1/22/2021
Beth Israel Lahey Health Winchester Hospital: “Diagnosis of Viral Upper Respiratory Infections (Cold and Influenza).”
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Diagnosing Flu.”
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Key Facts About Influenza (Flu).”
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Strep Throat: All You Need to Know.”
Government of Canada: “Coronavirus disease (COVID-19): Symptoms and treatment.”
Johns Hopkins Medicine: “Upper Respiratory Infection (URI or Common Cold).”
National Health Service: “Respiratory tract infections (RTIs).”
Stat Pearls: “Upper Respiratory Tract Infection.”
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