What is an upper respiratory infection?

The term, upper respiratory infection, often refers to a head cold or the common cold. However, a broader definition of an upper respiratory infection, or URI, is any infection of the upper parts of the respiratory tract, including the nasal passages, nasal sinuses, and throat. Sometimes the upper bronchi (large air passages leading to the left and right lungs) are included in this definition. In contrast, a lower respiratory infection is an infection of the lungs themselves or the smaller air passages within the lungs.

Types of URIs

The American Academy of Family Physicians defines a URI as an infection of the mucous membranes from the nose down to the respiratory tree or bronchi. Some types of URIs and their causes include:

  • Acute bronchitis is inflammation of the bronchial tubes usually caused by a viral infection or sometimes a bacterial infection. Some sources classify acute bronchitis as a lower respiratory tract infection instead of a URI.

  • Common cold is caused by a viral infection. More than 200 different viruses can cause a cold.

  • Croup, or laryngotracheitis, is inflammation of the larynx (voice box) and windpipe usually caused by a virus.

  • Epiglottitis is a rare, life-threatening inflammation of the epiglottis, the flap of cartilage that covers the windpipe and protects it from inhalation of food. Epiglottitis is usually caused by a viral infection and mainly affects infants and children.

  • Influenza is caused by a viral infection.

  • Laryngitis is inflammation of the larynx (voice box) usually caused by a viral infection.

  • Pharyngitis is inflammation of the throat usually caused by a viral infection and sometimes a bacterial infection.

  • Sinusitis is inflammation of the sinuses usually due to a viral, bacterial or fungal infection.

  • Streptococcal pharyngitis, which is also known as strep throat, is caused by a bacterial infection.

In some cases, ear infections (otitis media, otitis externa, and otitis interna) are included in the definition of URI.

On average, children will have around five URIs in a year, while adults will have two to three of these infections. Viruses are the most common cause of URIs, followed by bacteria. These germs are most often spread by hand-to-hand contact. Washing your hands frequently is an important way to prevent spreading or catching an upper respiratory infection.

Generally, URIs caused by viruses will get better on their own after seven to 10 days. In the meantime, you can find relief by getting plenty of rest, drinking fluids, using over-the-counter cough drops, or taking over-the-counter cold medicines. In some cases, bacterial complications develop and are treated with antibiotic medications. Otherwise, antibiotics are unhelpful for the common cold.

In some cases, a URI can lead to a serious or life-threatening condition, such as epiglottitis or pneumonia. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have serious symptoms, such as difficulty breathing, pale or blue lips or skin, drooling, difficulty swallowing, or voice changes. Other serious symptoms include a change in alertness, extreme irritability in an infant, unresponsiveness, sore throat, and high fever with shaking chills.

Seek prompt medical care if you have a chronic disease or have a compromised immune system and develop symptoms of a URI, or if you have a URI that is not getting better.


What are the symptoms of an upper respiratory tract infection?

Symptoms of an upper respiratory infection (URI) are generally mild and appear two to three days after exposure to a virus. Symptoms can vary depending on the specific type of virus causing the infection and the location of the infection in the respiratory tract. However, symptoms of different URIs often overlap. Common URI symptoms include:


What causes an upper respiratory infection?

URIs are usually caused by viruses, but can also be caused by bacteria in some cases. There are more than 200 different types of viruses and several types of bacteria that can cause a URI. Despite popular belief, being wet or cold does not cause respiratory infections, although these conditions may lower the body’s resistance to infection.

URIs are contagious and are most often sp... Read more about upper respiratory infectioncauses


How is an upper respiratory infection treated?

There is currently no cure for upper respiratory infections (URIs) caused by viruses, but by treating your symptoms, you can get the rest you need to keep up your strength and recover without developing complications.

Treatment of viral URIs

Treatment of viral infections includes:

Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS Last Annual Review Date: Sep 6, 2013 Copyright: © Copyright 2014 Health Grades, Inc. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or reprinted without permission from Health Grades, Inc. Use of this information is governed by the HealthGrades User Agreement.

This Article is Filed Under: Lungs, Breathing and Respiration

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