Upper Respiratory Infection, Adult

ExitCare ImageAn upper respiratory infection (URI) is also sometimes known as the common cold. The upper respiratory tract includes the nose, sinuses, throat, trachea, and bronchi. Bronchi are the airways leading to the lungs. Most people improve within 1 week, but symptoms can last up to 2 weeks. A residual cough may last even longer.


Many different viruses can infect the tissues lining the upper respiratory tract. The tissues become irritated and inflamed and often become very moist. Mucus production is also common. A cold is contagious. You can easily spread the virus to others by oral contact. This includes kissing, sharing a glass, coughing, or sneezing. Touching your mouth or nose and then touching a surface, which is then touched by another person, can also spread the virus.


Symptoms typically develop 1 to 3 days after you come in contact with a cold virus. Symptoms vary from person to person. They may include:

  • Runny nose.

  • Sneezing.

  • Nasal congestion.

  • Sinus irritation.

  • Sore throat.

  • Loss of voice (laryngitis).

  • Cough.

  • Fatigue.

  • Muscle aches.

  • Loss of appetite.

  • Headache.

  • Low-grade fever.


You might diagnose your own cold based on familiar symptoms, since most people get a cold 2 to 3 times a year. Your caregiver can confirm this based on your exam. Most importantly, your caregiver can check that your symptoms are not due to another disease such as strep throat, sinusitis, pneumonia, asthma, or epiglottitis. Blood tests, throat tests, and X-rays are not necessary to diagnose a common cold, but they may sometimes be helpful in excluding other more serious diseases. Your caregiver will decide if any further tests are required.


You may be at risk for a more severe case of the common cold if you smoke cigarettes, have chronic heart disease (such as heart failure) or lung disease (such as asthma), or if you have a weakened immune system. The very young and very old are also at risk for more serious infections. Bacterial sinusitis, middle ear infections, and bacterial pneumonia can complicate the common cold. The common cold can worsen asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Sometimes, these complications can require emergency medical care and may be life-threatening.


The best way to protect against getting a cold is to practice good hygiene. Avoid oral or hand contact with people with cold symptoms. Wash your hands often if contact occurs. There is no clear evidence that vitamin C, vitamin E, echinacea, or exercise reduces the chance of developing a cold. However, it is always recommended to get plenty of rest and practice good nutrition.


Treatment is directed at relieving symptoms. There is no cure. Antibiotics are not effective, because the infection is caused by a virus, not by bacteria. Treatment may include:

  • Increased fluid intake. Sports drinks offer valuable electrolytes, sugars, and fluids.

  • Breathing heated mist or steam (vaporizer or shower).

  • Eating chicken soup or other clear broths, and maintaining good nutrition.

  • Getting plenty of rest.

  • Using gargles or lozenges for comfort.

  • Controlling fevers with ibuprofen or acetaminophen as directed by your caregiver.

  • Increasing usage of your inhaler if you have asthma.

Zinc gel and zinc lozenges, taken in the first 24 hours of the common cold, can shorten the duration and lessen the severity of symptoms. Pain medicines may help with fever, muscle aches, and throat pain. A variety of non-prescription medicines are available to treat congestion and runny nose. Your caregiver can make recommendations and may suggest nasal or lung inhalers for other symptoms.


  • Only take over-the-counter or prescription medicines for pain, discomfort, or fever as directed by your caregiver.

  • Use a warm mist humidifier or inhale steam from a shower to increase air moisture. This may keep secretions moist and make it easier to breathe.

  • Drink enough water and fluids to keep your urine clear or pale yellow.

  • Rest as needed.

  • Return to work when your temperature has returned to normal or as your caregiver advises. You may need to stay home longer to avoid infecting others. You can also use a face mask and careful hand washing to prevent spread of the virus.


  • After the first few days, you feel you are getting worse rather than better.

  • You need your caregiver's advice about medicines to control symptoms.

  • You develop chills, worsening shortness of breath, or brown or red sputum. These may be signs of pneumonia.

  • You develop yellow or brown nasal discharge or pain in the face, especially when you bend forward. These may be signs of sinusitis.

  • You develop a fever, swollen neck glands, pain with swallowing, or white areas in the back of your throat. These may be signs of strep throat.


  • You have a fever.

  • You develop severe or persistent headache, ear pain, sinus pain, or chest pain.

  • You develop wheezing, a prolonged cough, cough up blood, or have a change in your usual mucus (if you have chronic lung disease).

  • You develop sore muscles or a stiff neck.