Upper Respiratory Infection
Medically reviewed by Drugs.com. Last updated on Feb 4, 2024.
What is an upper respiratory infection?
An upper respiratory infection is also called a cold. It can affect your nose, throat, ears, and sinuses. You are more likely to get a cold in the winter. Your risk is higher if you smoke cigarettes or have allergies, such as hay fever.
What causes a cold?
A cold is caused by a virus. Many viruses can cause a cold, and each is contagious. A virus may be spread to others through coughing, sneezing, or close contact. A virus can also stay on objects and surfaces. You can become infected if you touch the object or surface and then touch your eyes, mouth, or nose.
What are the signs and symptoms of a cold?
Cold symptoms are usually worst for the first 3 to 5 days. You may have any of the following:
- Runny or stuffy nose
- Sneezing and coughing
- Sore throat or hoarseness
- Red, watery, and sore eyes
- A lack of energy and feeling tired
- Chills and fever
- Headache, body aches, or sore muscles
How is a cold treated?
Colds are caused by viruses and do not get better with antibiotics. Most people get better in 7 to 14 days. You may continue to cough for 2 to 3 weeks. The following may help decrease your symptoms:
- Decongestants help reduce nasal congestion and help you breathe more easily. If you take decongestant pills, they may make you feel restless or cause problems with your sleep. Do not use decongestant sprays for longer than a few days.
- Cough suppressants help reduce coughing. Ask your healthcare provider which type of cough medicine is best for you.
- NSAIDs , such as ibuprofen, help decrease swelling, pain, and fever. NSAIDs can cause stomach bleeding or kidney problems in certain people. If you take blood thinner medicine, always ask your healthcare provider if NSAIDs are safe for you. Always read the medicine label and follow directions.
- Acetaminophen decreases pain and fever. It is available without a doctor's order. Ask how much to take and how often to take it. Follow directions. Read the labels of all other medicines you are using to see if they also contain acetaminophen, or ask your doctor or pharmacist. Acetaminophen can cause liver damage if not taken correctly.
How can I manage a cold?
- Rest as much as possible. Slowly start to do more each day.
- Drink more liquids as directed. Liquids will help thin and loosen mucus so you can cough it up. Liquids will also help prevent dehydration. Liquids that help prevent dehydration include water, fruit juice, and broth. Do not drink liquids that contain caffeine. Caffeine can increase your risk for dehydration. Ask your healthcare provider how much liquid to drink each day.
- Soothe a sore throat. Gargle with warm salt water. Make salt water by dissolving ¼ teaspoon salt in 1 cup warm water. You may also suck on hard candy or throat lozenges. You may use a sore throat spray.
- Use a humidifier or vaporizer. Use a cool mist humidifier or a vaporizer to increase air moisture in your home. This may make it easier for you to breathe and help decrease your cough.
- Use saline nasal drops as directed. These help relieve congestion.
- Apply petroleum-based jelly around the outside of your nostrils. This can decrease irritation from blowing your nose.
- Do not smoke. Nicotine and other chemicals in cigarettes and cigars can make your symptoms worse. They can also cause infections such as bronchitis or pneumonia. Ask your healthcare provider for information if you currently smoke and need help to quit. E-cigarettes or smokeless tobacco still contain nicotine. Talk to your healthcare provider before you use these products.
What can I do to prevent the common cold?
- Wash your hands often. Use soap and water every time you wash your hands. Rub your soapy hands together, lacing your fingers. Use the fingers of one hand to scrub under the nails of the other hand. Wash for at least 20 seconds. Rinse with warm, running water for several seconds. Then dry your hands. Use hand sanitizer gel if soap and water are not available. Do not touch your eyes or mouth without washing your hands first.
- Cover a sneeze or cough. Use a tissue that covers your mouth and nose. Put the used tissue in the trash right away. Use the bend of your arm if a tissue is not available. Wash your hands well with soap and water or use a hand sanitizer. Do not stand close to anyone who is sneezing or coughing.
- Try to stay away from others while you are sick. This is especially important during the first 2 to 3 days when the virus is more easily spread. Wait until a fever, cough, or other symptoms are gone before you return to work or other regular activities.
- Do not share items while you are sick. This includes food, drinks, eating utensils, and dishes.
Call your local emergency number (911 in the US) if:
- You have chest pain or trouble breathing.
When should I seek immediate care?
- You have a fever over 102ºF (39ºC).
When should I call my doctor?
- You have a low fever.
- 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 are not better in 14 days.
- You have a rash anywhere on your skin.
- You have large, tender lumps in your neck.
- You have thick, green, or yellow drainage from your nose.
- You cough up thick yellow, green, or bloody mucus.
- You have a bad earache.
- You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.
Care AgreementYou have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your healthcare providers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. 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.
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