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What is an Upper Respiratory Infection?

An “Upper” respiratory infection, also known as the common cold, is an infection that affects the respiratory passages in our head and neck area. A “Lower” respiratory infection involves the lungs, and usually refers to either bronchitis or pneumonia, which we discussed in our last newsletter. Upper Respiratory Infection (URIs) are usually caused by a virus, and there are dozens of different viruses that can infect our nasal passages, sinuses, throat, and ears. The infection causes inflammation of the respiratory passages and in increase in mucus secretions. This produces the typical symptoms seen with a Upper Respiratory Infection (URI):

  • Coughing
  • Nasal congestion
  • Sinus pressure
  • Runny nose
  • Sneezing
  • Sore Throat
  • Ear Pain

How is a Upper Respiratory Infection (URI) diagnosed?

Generally, your doctor can make a diagnosis based on your symptoms and physical exam. There are no tests to confirm the presence of a Upper Respiratory Infection (URI).

How is a Upper Respiratory Infection (URI) treated?

Unfortunately, there is no cure for the common cold. Antibiotics do not work against viruses, only against bacteria. Your body’s immune system will fight off the infection, which usually takes about one week to resolve. While a Upper Respiratory Infection (URI) cannot be cured, you can treat the symptoms. The most important treatments for a Upper Respiratory Infection (URI) are the ones your mother told you–rest and drink lots of fluids.

Several over-the-counter medications can be used to treat the symptoms:

  • Ibuprofen (Motrin or Advil) and acetaminophen for pain or fever
  • Guaifenesin (Mucinex, Robitussin) for cough
  • Dextromethorphan for cough
  • Pseudophedrine (Sudafed, Claritin-D, Zyrtec-D) for congestion and runny nose. These medications are located “behind the counter” with the pharmacist although you do not need a prescription for them.
  • Nasal steroid sprays (Flonase, Nasocort, Rhinocort)
  • Many of these medicines come in combination “Cold” and “Flu” preparations such as Dayquil/Nyquil, Tylenol Cold & Flu, etc.

How Can You Tell the Difference Between a (URI) and the flu?

The flu is also a viral infection caused by the Influenza virus, but there are important differences between influenza and the common cold. Unlike a simple Upper Respiratory Infection (URI), the flu usually causes a higher fever (often > 101), as well as body aches and headaches. While there is no test for a common cold, there is a test for flu that can be run in your doctor’s office. If you do have the flu, your doctor can treat you with an antiviral medication (similar to an antibiotic) that targets the influenza virus. Unfortunately, there is no similar antiviral treatment for a Upper Respiratory Infection (URI).

Could it be Strep?

Strep is the name of a bacteria that causes an infection (“Strep throat” or “Strep pharyngitis”) that can mimic a Upper Respiratory Infection (URI). However, patients with Strep generally have more severe pain with difficulty swallowing, and less sinus congestion and coughing. As for the flu, there is a simple test your doctor can run in the office for Strep. Unlike a Upper Respiratory Infection (URI), Strep is treated with antibiotics.

When should I see a doctor?

You should see a doctor if your symptoms do not improve after one week, or if you are developing worsening symptoms. Even a simple Upper Respiratory Infection (URI) can lead to complications. Viruses suppress our immune system and increase mucus production, both of which can lead to the following bacterial complications:

  • Middle ear infections (“otitis”)–causes worsening ear pain on one side
  • Bacterial pharyngitis–causes worsening throat pain with difficulty swallowing
  • Bacterial sinusitis–causes persistent and worsening headaches and sinus pressure
  • Pneumonia–causes persistent cough, often with chest pain or difficulty breathing
  • Meningitis (rare)–an infection of the lining of the brain which produces a severe persistent headache with neck stiffness

All of these conditions are usually associated with a fever. If you develop any of these symptoms or are concerned about a complication of your Upper Respiratory Infection (URI), see your doctor or go to an urgent care clinic.