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What you need to know about upper respiratory infections

An upper respiratory infection (URI), often referred to as the common cold, is a viral infection that primarily affects the nose, throat, and sometimes the sinuses and upper airways. It can cause a range of symptoms that vary in intensity from person to person.

Are upper respiratory infections contagious?

Upper respiratory infections are contagious. These infections are primarily caused by viruses, and the viruses responsible for URIs can spread easily from person to person through various means. Contagion occurs through:

  • Direct contact: Physical contact with an infected person, such as shaking hands, hugging, or kissing.

  • Airborne droplets: When an infected person coughs, sneezes, talks, or even breathes, they release tiny droplets into the air. If you inhale these droplets, you can become infected.

  • Contaminated surfaces: Viruses can survive on surfaces for a certain period. If you touch a contaminated surface and then touch your face (mouth, nose, or eyes), you can introduce the virus into your body.

  • Close proximity: Being in close proximity to an infected person, especially in enclosed spaces like classrooms, offices, or public transportation, increases the risk of contagion.

  • Sharing items: Sharing utensils, cups, towels, or personal items with an infected person can lead to transmission.


Prevent the spread of URIs by washing your hands frequently with soap and water, using hand sanitizers, avoiding close contact with sick individuals, and covering your mouth and nose when sneezing or coughing to prevent the release of infectious droplets into the air.

What are the symptoms of upper respiratory infections?

An upper respiratory infection (URI) can manifest with various symptoms and signs, often resembling a cold or flu. These include:


What can cause an upper respiratory infection?

An upper respiratory infection (URI) is primarily caused by viruses that infect the nose, throat, and airways. The most common culprits include:

  • Rhinoviruses: These are the leading cause of URI, often responsible for cold-like symptoms.

  • Influenza virus: Influenza, or the flu virus, can also lead to URI symptoms.

  • Coronaviruses: Some strains of coronaviruses, like the common cold coronavirus, can cause URIs.

  • Adenoviruses: These viruses can lead to respiratory infections, including URIs.

  • Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV): Common in young children, RSV can cause URI symptoms and lower respiratory tract infections.

  • Parainfluenza virus: This virus can cause croup and other upper respiratory symptoms.


How do you treat an upper respiratory infection?

Treating an upper respiratory infection involves a combination of rest, self-care measures, and, in some cases, medical intervention. Here's how to manage the symptoms:

  • Rest and hydration: Get plenty of rest to allow your body to recover. Drink fluids like water, herbal tea, and clear broths to stay hydrated.

  • Over-the-counter medications: Non-prescription medications can help relieve symptoms. Consider using:

    • Decongestants to reduce nasal congestion.

    • Pain relievers like acetaminophen or ibuprofen to alleviate headaches, fever, and body aches.

    • Cough suppressants or expectorants for cough relief.

  • Saline nasal sprays: These can help moisturize and clear nasal passages.

  • Warm salt gargles: Gargling with warm salt water can soothe a sore throat.

  • Steam inhalation: Inhaling steam from a bowl of hot water can ease congestion and soothe irritated airways.

  • Humidifiers: Using a humidifier in your room can add moisture to the air, helping with congestion.

  • Avoid irritants: Stay away from smoke, strong odors, and other irritants that can worsen symptoms.

  • Antiviral medications: In certain cases, antiviral medications may be prescribed by a doctor, especially if the infection is caused by the flu.

  • Prescription medications: If your symptoms are severe or complicated, a doctor may prescribe antibiotics (if bacterial infection is present) or other medications to manage specific symptoms.

  • Seek medical attention: If you have difficulty breathing, high fever, severe pain, or other concerning symptoms, schedule an appointment with a Baylor St. Luke's Medical Group primary care provider.


What are the risk factors for an upper respiratory infection?

  • Weakened immune system: Individuals with compromised immune systems, such as those with HIV/AIDS, undergoing chemotherapy, or taking immunosuppressant drugs, are more susceptible to URIs.

  • Age: Infants, young children, and older adults are at higher risk due to developing immune systems (infants) and weakened immune responses (older adults).

  • Exposure to infected individuals: Being in close contact with someone who has a URI, especially in crowded settings like schools and workplaces, increases the risk.

  • Seasonal factors: URIs are more common in fall and winter when certain viruses thrive in cooler, drier conditions.

  • Environmental factors: Exposure to cold air or sudden temperature changes can weaken the body's defenses.

  • Smoking and secondhand smoke: Smoking damages the respiratory system, making it easier for infections to take hold. Secondhand smoke exposure can also increase risk.

  • Chronic health conditions: Conditions like asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and diabetes can make individuals more susceptible to URIs.

  • Poor hygiene: Not washing hands regularly, touching the face, and other poor hygiene practices can facilitate the spread of viruses.

  • Lack of vaccination: Not being up-to-date on vaccinations, particularly for flu and pneumonia, can increase vulnerability.

  • Stress: High levels of stress can weaken the immune system, making it harder to fight off infections.

  • Lack of sleep: Insufficient sleep can compromise the immune system's ability to respond effectively.

  • Air travel: Being in enclosed spaces with recirculated air, such as airplanes, can expose individuals to infectious agents.


Taking preventive measures, such as practicing good hygiene, staying up-to-date on vaccinations, and adopting a healthy lifestyle, can help reduce the risk of contracting upper respiratory infections.

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