Ahhh, the upper respiratory infection (URI). It‚Äôs one of the most common reasons for visiting the doctor every year. It‚Äôs also the most common illness resulting in missed days of work and school.
Most frequently occurring in the fall and winter, the upper respiratory infection is a contagious infection of the upper respiratory tract, which refers to the nose, paranasal sinuses, pharynx, larynx, trachea, and bronchi. While most cases are mild and go away on their own without treatment beyond rest, extra fluids, and chicken soup, some are severe enough to be life-threatening and require hospitalization.1
The vast majority of URIs are caused by viruses, although bacteria are responsible for a small percentage of cases. There are over 200 different viruses that can cause the symptoms of a URI, the most common being the rhinoviruses which are responsible for the common cold. Other common viruses include the coronavirus, parainfluenza virus, adenovirus, enterovirus, and respiratory syncytial virus.
The common cold is the most widespread type of URI. Other types refer to the area of the upper respiratory tract that is most involved in the infection and include:
The most common symptoms of a URI include:
Other possible symptoms include fever, general malaise, headache and body aches. Most symptoms go away on their own within 7 to 10 days. If symptoms persist beyond that or worsen, it‚Äôs important to seek medical attention as soon as possible.
URIs can spread in several different ways. For example, when you cough or sneeze, tiny droplets of fluid containing the virus are propelled into the air. If someone nearby inhales them, they too may become infected.
Upper respiratory infections can also be spread through indirect contact. For example, if you have a URI and touch your nose, eyes or mouth and then you touch an object like a doorknob, the virus may be transmitted to someone else who touches that same doorknob and then touches their own nose, mouth or eyes.5
Most URIs are self-diagnosed and managed at home. If a patient goes to the doctor with an uncomplicated URI, a diagnosis can be made by reviewing a patients‚Äô medical history, assessing their symptoms and performing a physical exam. Tests that are used to address more complicated cases of upper respiratory infection include:
Because most URIs are caused by viruses, are self-limiting, and managed at home by the patient themselves, treatment for uncomplicated cases in an otherwise healthy patient is based on relief of symptoms and may include the following:
Additional home-care measures that help relieve symptoms include:7
It‚Äôs important to note that antibiotics are ineffective against viral infections of the upper respiratory tract and are reserved for URIs that are bacterial in nature including:7
People with COPD or other chronic (ongoing) health conditions are at risk for respiratory infections that may further impair their lungs. The following tips may help you prevent a URI before it happens:7
Upper respiratory infections are common and many people get several each year. Although treatment is directed toward managing symptoms while the body‚Äôs own immune system fights the infection, the best way to manage URIs is through prevention. For more information about preventing URIs, talk to your primary health care provider.
 Roger Zoorob, MD, MPH, et. al. ‚ÄúAntibiotic Use in Acute Upper Respiratory Infections.‚ÄĚ Am Fam Physician.¬†2012¬†Nov¬†1;86(9):817-822.
 Sherif B. Mossad. Upper Respiratory Infections. Cleveland Clinic. Accessed 3/23/2017.
 Johns Hopkins Medicine. Upper Respiratory Infection (URI or Common Cold). Accessed 3/23/2017.
 Mary T. Caserta, MD. Overview of Viral Respiratory Tract Infections in Children. Merck Manual. Accessed 3/23/2017.
 American Rhinologic Society. Upper Respiratory Infections. Revised 2/17/2015.
 National Health Services UK. Respiratory Tract Infections. Last reviewed 4/14/2015.
 Anne Meneghetti, MD. Respiratory Tract Infections. Medscape. Updated 2/17/2017.