Upper 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
- Common cold. Fever, chills, runny nose, sore throat, swollen lymph nodes, headache, all-over body aches.
- Sinusitis. Irritated/swollen sinuses, clogged ears, sore throat, nasal discharge, coughing, high grade fever.
- Epiglottitis. The upper end of the trachea swells, difficulty breathing, drooling, coughing, fever, hoarseness leading to laryngitis, feeling like there is a "lump in the throat."
- Laryngitis. Voice box inflammation, difficulty speaking, sore throat, painful swallowing, hoarseness, feeling of a "lump in the throat."
- Bronchitis. Bronchial tubes (leading to the lungs) become inflamed, persistent cough, inflammation of sinuses and throat, fever, nasal drip, tightness in the chest (often from mucus build-up), headache, feeling like there is a shortness of breath.
- Strep throat. Red and white splotches on the back of the palate/throat, very painful sore throat, very high fever, swollen lymph nodes in neck, swollen sinuses and nasal passages.
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:
- Breathing in and out over warm steaming water.
- Use of menthol rubs or inhalants (either over the counter or prescribed).
- Analgesics to help with fever, swelling and general aches and pain.
- Gargling with warmed salt water to sanitize the mouth and throat and promote faster healing.
- Use of decongestants to rid the sinuses of mucus and open the airways.
- Intake of vitamin C, zinc and electrolytes to help with immune system function and hydration.
- Use of expectorants and cough suppressants to ease coughing and mucus build-up.
Prevention & Prophylaxis
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.