8 Things to Know About Upper Respiratory Infections

  • Overhead view of Asian American woman sick on couch blowing nose
    Facts About Upper Respiratory Infections
    Bacteria and viruses (and, less commonly, other germs like fungi) can infect both the upper respiratory tract (the airway track above the lungs) and the lower respiratory tract (the lungs themselves). Upper airway infections affect the nasal sinuses, throat and esophageal areas, but not the bronchi and other lung tissues. Common cold viruses cause most upper respiratory infections (URIs). URIs can be caused by influenza viruses and bacteria too, such as strep throat or a bacterial sinus infection. Learn the signs and symptoms of an upper respiratory tract infection—and when to see a medical professional for diagnosis and treatment.

  • Caucasian male doctor checking breathing of older Caucasian patient with stethoscope on patient's back
    1. The respiratory tract is divided into two parts, medically speaking.
    The respiratory tract begins at the nose and ends at the bottom of the lungs. But for diagnostic and treatment specialization, doctors divide the tract into two parts: upper and lower. The upper respiratory tract includes the structures above the windpipe and lungs, including the vocal cords, throat and nasal sinuses. Upper respiratory infections only affect the upper tract, not the lungs. If you develop symptoms like deep chest congestion, that’s a sign of a lower respiratory tract infection and should be promptly evaluated by a healthcare provider.

  • Young Caucasian man on subway train blowing nose from cold or flu
    2. Both viruses and bacteria cause URIs.
    The most common cause of URIs is the cold virus; more than 200 different viruses can cause colds! According to U.S. statistics, more than one billion colds occur in the country annually. Influenza, another cause of URIs, is a virus. Bacteria can cause URIs too. Common bacterial upper respiratory infections include sinus infections (also called sinusitis), strep throat, and tonsillitis. Antibiotics can cure bacterial infections, but a dose of these meds won’t do a thing for a viral infection. If you’re unsure whether your URI is bacterial or viral, see a healthcare professional for diagnosis and appropriate treatment.

  • Overhead shot of Caucasian woman sick at home drinking tea on couch
    3. You can treat most upper respiratory viruses at home.
    Infants, young children, and the elderly who develop upper respiratory symptoms that include trouble breathing, blueness around the mouth, or serious coughing should be evaluated promptly by a doctor. But most teens and adults who come down with a cold or the flu can safely treat the virus at home. Use over-the-counter symptom relievers according to package instructions. Be careful not to combine products, as this can lead to getting too much of a single medicine. Rest and drink lots of fluids. Your symptoms should improve and clear up within a few days to a week.

  • Cropped image of Caucasian doctor's hand holding thermometer after taking female Caucasian patient's temperature
    4. A viral URI can lead to a bacterial URI.
    Occasionally, a viral URI like the common cold can lead to a bacterial URI, oftentimes a sinus infection. Colds cause massive mucus production within the nasal cavity. Sometimes this mucus does not fully drain out after the virus has run its course. This excessive mucus lying deep in the sinuses can brew a subsequent bacterial infection. See a doctor if you recently recovered from a cold but have lingering symptoms of a URI like sinus pain, postnasal drip and possibly a low-grade fever, as these can indicate a sinus infection.

  • Young African American boy having throat checked by female African American doctor
    5. Tonsillitis is an upper respiratory infection.
    Tonsillitis—inflammation of the tonsils due to infection—is considered an upper respiratory infection because the condition occurs within the respiratory tract and can affect breathing. The tonsils are a pair of fleshy bumps located on either side of the very back of the throat; they are part of the immune system. But, if the tonsils swell up too much due to infection, they can block the airway and make it difficult to breathe. Tonsillitis can be caused by either bacteria or a virus. If your child develops a sore throat with visibly swollen tonsils, see a medical professional for an evaluation and appropriate treatment.

  • Young Caucasian girl sick on couch with mother checking throat for swelling
    6. Strep throat is also a URI.
    Strep, or Streptococcus pyogenes, accounts for nearly one-third of all sore throats (pharyngitis) in children. Strep throat symptoms can include fever, visibly patchy red-and-white throat, difficulty swallowing, lower stomach pain, and a skin rash elsewhere on the body. If your child develops these symptoms, see a doctor promptly for diagnosis. Strep can turn serious quickly and should be treated with a course of antibiotics.

  • Medicines in hand
    7. Antibiotics should not be used to treat viral respiratory infections.
    Taking antibiotics like penicillin for viral respiratory infections not only is ineffective but likely contributes to the global rise of antibiotic-resistant infections. You should never save antibiotics previously prescribed to you or your child and take them later for vague symptoms that could be viral in origin. If you receive a prescription for antibiotics, take them exactly according to the label instructions and always take every pill in the bottle. If you’re unsure how to take antibiotics or why they’ve been prescribed to you, ask your doctor or pharmacist.

  • Caucasian man on couch sick with with cold or flu looking at pack of pills
    8. Antiviral medications can treat influenza—if you act quickly.
    Although you can’t cure the common cold virus, antiviral medicines are a treatment option for influenza—if you seek medical care within 48 hours of symptom onset. Influenza is a particularly nasty type of upper respiratory infection that causes moderate-to-severe symptoms like fever, chills and body aches. Antiviral drugs can lessen influenza symptom severity and shorten the course of the infection. If you develop flu-like symptoms, see your doctor or head for an urgent care center within 48 hours to be tested for influenza and receive antiviral medication if appropriate.

8 Things to Know About Upper Respiratory Infections

About The Author

As “the nurse who knows content,” Elizabeth Hanes, RN, works with national and regional healthcare systems, brands, agencies and publishers to produce all types of consumer-facing content. Formerly a perioperative and cosmetic surgery nurse, Elizabeth today uses her nursing knowledge to inform her writing on a wide variety of medical, health and wellness topics.
  1. Common Cold. MedlinePlus, U.S. National Institutes of Health. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/000678.htm
  2. Common Cold. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/common-cold/symptoms-causes/syc-20351605
  3. Sinusitis. MedlinePlus, U.S. National Institutes of Health. https://medlineplus.gov/sinusitis.html
  4. Tonsillitis. MedlinePlus, U.S. National Institutes of Health. https://medlineplus.gov/tonsillitis.html
  5. Strep Throat (for Parents). KidsHealth from Nemours. https://kidshealth.org/en/parents/strep-throat.html
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Last Review Date: 2019 Apr 29
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