Upper respiratory tract infection

Medical quality assurance by Dr. Albrecht Nonnenmacher, MD at November 22, 2016
StartDiseasesUpper respiratory tract infection

An upper respiratory tract infection (URI or URTI), includes a range of respiratory ailments ranging from the common cold to more serious secondary infections, including strep throat. Because upper respiratory tract infections are so common and symptoms and treatments can vary widely, it is a wise idea to learn the basic warning signs to know when a visit to the doctor may be in order.


Definition & Facts

As is the case nearly every year, more individuals visit their family doctor because of symptoms caused by an upper respiratory tract infection that any other single illness. URIs are contagious but some are more responsive to treatment than others owing to the specific nature of the symptoms.

Symptoms & Complaints

Each type of upper respiratory tract infection comes with its own set of symptoms. Some symptoms overlap quite a bit and others less so. Here is an overview of symptoms for each type of upper respiratory tract infection:


An upper respiratory tract infection can arise from both a virus and a bacteria. Both viral infections and bacterial infections can be contagious. Contact with an infected person can lead to development of a URI. If an infected person sneezes, shares eating or drinking utensils, or is in a closed environment (such as a classroom or medical clinic), it can become likely that nearby uninfected people will be exposed to the germs that can lead to a upper respiratory tract infection.

The risk of transmission is higher during certain times of year, such as the traditional "cold and flu season" that happens every fall and winter. Scientists don't know exactly why URI's are more common during these months but they suspect it may have to do with easier transmission between people because people spend more time inside in close proximity during winter months. Another explanation is that the immune system gets weakened during winter and fall due to the reduction in the absorption of vitamin D from being outside. Also, viruses may survive better in cold, dry climates than in warm, humid ones.

Diagnosis & Tests

Because a upper respiratory tract infection can be either viral or bacterial, it is often necessary for a doctor to perform certain lab tests to determine the exact diagnosis and best course of treatment. The patient's own description of symptoms and a thorough physical examination can be helpful in forming an accurate diagnosis. Diagnosis can include any or all of the following tests:

  • Throat culture. This test is particularly helpful to diagnose strep throat.
  • X-rays. Chest X-rays can help diagnose the correct type of upper respiratory tract infection.
  • CT scan. A diagnosis of sinusitis can be accurately confirmed by performing a CT scan, a special type of X-ray that can generate detailed images of the body.

Treatment & Therapy

For most upper respiratory tract infection patients, the majority of treatment and therapy focuses on abating symptoms rather than curing the underlying infection. However, for very young patients, it may be necessary for more intensive treatment to manage symptoms.

If the underlying cause of the upper respiratory tract infection is bacterial, antibiotics can be prescribed to help shorten the course of the illness and lessen the discomfort. If the underlying cause is viral, however, antibiotics have not been shown to be helpful with either goal. Comfort care treatments that are often prescribed include these different aids:

Prevention & Prophylaxis

There are some precautions that can be taken to lessen the risk of becoming infected with either the bacterial or viral forms. The best preventive measure available is to wash hands frequently and to sanitize anything touched by a suspected ill person (especially if one member of a family gets sick). Refraining from being in close quarters with ill people can also help lessen the risk.

Some workplaces today are encouraging people infected with a upper respiratory tract infection to work from home rather than risking infection to other healthy employees. This is an especially wise policy when "cold and flu season" hits during the winter. When ill people cover their mouth and nose during coughing, sneezing or nose-blowing, it safeguards nearby healthy people and lowers their risk of being infected with an upper respiratory tract infection.