Skip to Content

Upper Respiratory Infection


An upper respiratory infection is also called the common cold. It is an infection that can affect your nose, throat, ears, and sinuses. For healthy people, the common cold is usually not serious and does not need special treatment. Cold symptoms are usually worst for the first 3 to 5 days. Most people get better in 7 to 14 days. You may continue to cough for 2 to 3 weeks. Colds are caused by viruses and do not get better with antibiotics.



  • Decongestants: You can take a decongestant to treat your stuffy nose. Decongestants can be pills or nasal sprays. Always follow dose instructions on the label when taking this medicine. If you take decongestant pills, they may make you feel restless or not able to sleep. Do not use decongestant nasal sprays for more than a few days. If overused they can cause worse inflammation when they are stopped.

  • Cough suppressants: These help reduce coughing. Ask your emergency provider which type of cough medicine is best for you. Some cough suppressants required a prescription, others do not.

  • Ibuprofen and acetaminophen: These medicines decrease pain and lower a fever. They are available without a doctor's order. Ask your caregiver which medicine is right for you. Ask how much to take and how often to take it. Follow directions. These medicines can cause stomach bleeding if not taken correctly. Ibuprofen can cause kidney damage. Do not take ibuprofen if you have kidney disease, an ulcer, or allergies to aspirin. Acetaminophen can cause liver damage. Do not drink alcohol if you take acetaminophen. You may use aspirin or medicines that have aspirin in them only if you are older than 18 years old.

  • Do not drive or use heavy equipment if any medicine makes you drowsy.

  • Take your medicine as directed. Call your healthcare provider if you think your medicine is not helping or if you have side effects. Tell him if you are allergic to any medicine. Keep a list of the medicines, vitamins, and herbs you take. Include the amounts, and when and why you take them. Bring the list or the pill bottles to follow-up visits. Carry your medicine list with you in case of an emergency.

Follow up with your healthcare provider as directed:

Write down your questions so you remember to ask them during your visits.


  • Rest: Rest until your fever is gone and you feel better.

  • Stay hydrated: Drink 8 to 10 cups of liquids such as water, ginger ale, tea or fruit juices each day. If you are vomiting, good fluids include decaffeinated sports drinks. The water, sugars, and salts in these drinks can help prevent dehydration.

  • Gargle: Gargle with warm salt water to help your sore throat feel better. Make salt water by adding ¼ teaspoon salt to 1 cup warm water. You may also suck on hard candy or throat lozenges. You may use a sore throat spray.

  • Saline nasal drops: These can help relieve your congestion. They can be bought without a prescription.

  • Take a warm bath or shower: This may help decrease body aches and help you breathe easier.

  • Use a cool-mist humidifier: This will increase air moisture and make it easier for you to breathe. Do not use a warm-mist humidifier.

Prevent spreading your cold to others:

  • Try to stay away from other people during the first 2 to 3 days of your cold when it is more easily spread.

  • Do not share food or drinks with anyone.

  • Do not share hand towels with household members.

  • Wash your hands often, especially after you blow your nose. Turn away from other people and cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you sneeze or cough.

Contact your primary healthcare provider if:

  • Your sore throat gets worse or you see white or yellow spots in your throat.

  • Your symptoms get worse after 3 to 5 days or your cold is not better in 14 days.

  • You have a rash anywhere on your skin.

  • You have large and tender lumps in your neck.

  • You have thick, green or yellow drainage from your nose.

  • You cough up thick yellow, green, gray, or bloody mucus.

  • You have vomiting for more than 24 hours and cannot keep fluids down.

  • You have a bad earache.

  • You have questions about your condition or care.

Return to the emergency department if:

  • You have bad headaches or a stiff neck, or bright light hurts your eyes.

  • You have chest pain or trouble breathing.

© 2015 Truven Health Analytics Inc. Information is for End User's use only and may not be sold, redistributed or otherwise used for commercial purposes. All illustrations and images included in CareNotes® are the copyrighted property of A.D.A.M., Inc. or Truven Health Analytics.

The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.