The upper respiratory tract includes the mouth, nose, throat, larynx (voice box), and trachea (windpipe). Upper respiratory infections are often referred to as “colds.”
The lower respiratory tract includes the bronchial tubes and the lungs. Bronchitis and pneumonia are infections of the lower respiratory tract.
The “common cold” is usually caused by a viral infection and treatment is directed at managing symptoms while the body’s own immune system fights the infection.
Common symptoms of an upper respiratory infection such as a cold include a runny nose, post-nasal drip,cough, and nasal congestion. If laryngitis develops (larynx=voice box + itis=inflammation), the patient may lose their voice or become hoarse.
It is often difficult to know the difference between an acute upper respiratory infection and influenza (seasonal or H1N1 flu).
However, influenza tends to cause symptoms and complaints that involve the entire body, including fever, chills, muscle aches and pains, and general malaise or feeling poorly.
Colds tend not to have such broad body system involvement. If the health care practitioner is concerned about the diagnosis of influenza (flu), antiviral medications may be prescribed.
There are no specific antiviral medications to treat the common cold.
What is an upper respiratory infection?
An upper respiratory infection is also called a common cold. It can affect your nose, throat, ears, and sinuses.
Upper Respiratory Infection Causes
People “catch” colds when they come into contact with airborne viruses. Most often, the virus spreads from person to person in respiratory droplets from sneezing or coughing.
Transmission of viruses can also spread due to poor hand washing techniques as the virus can be passed from person to person by coming in contact with respiratory droplets from an infected person with a handshake, touching the nose, eyes, or mouth after coming in contact with the virus.
Some viruses can live on surfaces such as sink faucets, door and drawer handles, table surfaces, pens, and computer keyboards for up to two hours.
People should understand that upper respiratory infections are contagious and are spread from person to person. Individuals are infected with the virus before symptoms arise and are therefore potentially contagious even before they know they are ill.
Thus, hygienic measures such as covering sneezes and coughs, and regular hand washing should be a routine habit practiced by everyone even when not ill.
Rhinovirus (rhino from the Greek word for nose) and coronavirus are the two most common viruses causing upper respiratory infections.
Other viruses including parainfluenza virus, respiratory syncytial virus, and adenovirus can cause colds but may also cause pneumonia, especially in infants and children.
Upper Respiratory Infection Risk Factors
Not everybody exposed to or who comes into direct contact with an ill person will “catch” their cold. People are especially susceptible if there is a decrease in the body’s immune system so that the virus can begin to spread and cause symptoms in the body.
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
- Tiredness or restlessness
- Chills and fever
- Headache, body aches, or sore muscles
How is a cold treated?
There is no cure for the common cold. Most people get better in 7 to 14 days. You may continue to cough for 2 to 3 weeks.
Self-care: Keep warm and get plenty of rest. Use a cool mist humidifier to help you breathe easier. Drink 8 to 10 cups of hot or cold liquids each day and eat healthy foods.
Medicines: Do not take any medicines without talking to your caregiver. The following may help reduce the symptoms of your cold:
Decongestants: These can help reduce nasal congestion and help with breathing. If you take decongestant pills, they may make you feel restless or not able to sleep.
Do not use decongestant 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 caregiver which type of cough medicine is best for you. Some cough suppressants require 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.
When should I contact my caregiver?
Contact your caregiver 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, 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 or concerns about your condition or care.
When should I seek immediate care?
Seek care immediately or call 911 if:
- You have bad headaches or a stiff neck, or bright light hurts your eyes.
- You have chest pain or trouble breathing.