What Is an Upper Respiratory Infection?

An upper respiratory infection (URI) is an infection that affects the nose, throat, or sinuses. The common cold is the most common URI. Other common types include pharyngitis, sinusitis, and laryngitis. Both bacteria and viruses can cause URIs, though viral infections are more common.

A runny or stuffy nose, congestion, sore throat, cough, wheezing, headache, and fatigue are the hallmark symptoms of a URI, and diagnosis is often made based on symptoms alone. Most URIs resolve within two weeks, and treatment focuses on alleviating symptoms while your body fights the infection.


Millions of people are affected by upper respiratory infections each year. Adults average two to three URIs per year, and children average about eight per year.

Most upper respiratory infections are viral infections that affect the nose, sinuses, throat, and larynx (voice box).

The most common types of URIs include: 

  • Common cold: Over 200 viruses can cause the common cold, though it's often caused by rhinovirus (a virus that most commonly causes colds). Symptoms occur a few days after exposure and last one to two weeks.
  • Influenza (flu): This is a viral condition that affects the upper and lower respiratory tract. It can be caused by a wide variety of viruses.
  • Sinusitis: A sinus infection that occurs when fluid builds up in the sinuses, which are air-filled cavities in the forehead, nasal cavity, cheeks, and around the eyes. Sinusitis can be acute (less than four weeks), subacute (four to 12 weeks), or chronic (more than 12 weeks).
  • Laryngitis: Inflammation of the larynx (voice box) that can occur due to an infection and cause hoarseness or loss of voice.
  • Pharyngitis: Inflammation of the pharynx (throat) or sore throat caused by a viral infection, like the common cold. 
  • Tonsillitis: Inflammation of the tonsils—two pads of tissue located at the back of the throat. Tonsillitis is more common in children and is usually caused by a viral infection or bacterial infection like strep throat.

Upper Respiratory Infection Symptoms 

Symptoms of an upper respiratory infection usually begin one to five days after exposure. Most people experience mild to moderate discomfort for one to two weeks, but you may have symptoms for up to three weeks.

Common URI symptoms include:

Most URIs resolve on their own. Reach out to your healthcare provider if your symptoms persist for more than ten days, worsen, or you develop new symptoms such as:


Viruses cause about 85% of upper respiratory infections, particularly rhinoviruses, coronaviruses, and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). Bacteria can cause some URIs, but this is less common. 

Viruses spread through respiratory droplets when an infected person talks, coughs, or sneezes. Respiratory droplets are tiny water droplets released from your mouth and nose. When exposed to these droplets, the virus can enter the mucus membranes in your mouth, nose, and eyes, causing you to become sick. You can also contract a virus by touching a surface contaminated with a virus and then touching your mouth, nose, or eyes.

Risk Factors

Most people have many upper respiratory infections throughout their lifetime. However, certain risk factors can make you more vulnerable to developing a URI. For example, young children and older adults are more susceptible to URIs.

Other risk factors include:

  • Close contact with a person who has a URI 
  • Smoking and second-hand smoke exposure 
  • A weakened immune system—for example, if you have HIV or cancer, take immunosuppressant medications, or have received an organ transplant 
  • Exposure to air pollution
  • Contact with large groups of children or close contact with large groups of people in closed settings (for example, airplane travel) 
  • Abnormalities in your upper airways due to facial trauma, upper airway trauma, or nasal polyps (soft, noncancerous bumps lining your nose or sinuses)


A healthcare provider will review your symptoms and medical history and perform a physical examination. They will examine your ears, nose, and throat to look for signs of inflammation and infection and listen to your lungs with a stethoscope while you breathe. 

Diagnostic tests are usually unnecessary because the diagnosis can be made based on symptoms and physical exam findings. Depending on your symptoms, a healthcare provider may order tests to rule out other conditions and confirm the diagnosis.

Testing might include:

  • Throat culture: This is a swab of the back of the throat to check for bacterial infections, such as strep A.
  • Nasal swab or aspirate: These are often used for infants and young children, as they can be easier than a throat culture. For a nasal aspirate, the healthcare provider squirts saline solution into the nose, then removes the sample with suction.
  • Blood tests: These help determine if the infection is bacterial or viral.
  • Chest X-ray: This provides images of the chest cavity to rule out pneumonia or other respiratory conditions. 
  • Respiratory pathogens panel: This is a sample of nasal secretions taken with a swab to identify the virus or bacteria causing the infection.
  • Computerized tomography (CT) scan: This is a series of computerized X-rays that can take multiple images of your sinuses and other parts of the body. It can show nasal polyps or other abnormalities in the nasal cavity if you have severe symptoms or trouble breathing.


Treatment for upper respiratory infections focuses on symptom relief, and most people recover at home within one to two weeks. 

At-Home Treatments

At-home treatments for upper respiratory infections include:

  • Rest: Getting plenty of rest helps your body recover faster. You may need to take some time off from work or school to promote healing. 
  • Fluids: Drinking plenty of fluids, such as water and herbal tea, can help relieve congestion and prevent dehydration
  • Salt water: Gargling with salt water can help relieve a sore throat.
  • Steam: Taking a hot shower or using a humidifier can help relieve congestion and coughing. 


Some over-the-counter (OTC) medications may help relieve URI symptoms, including:

  • Decongestants: Decongestants like Sudafed (pseudoephedrine) may help relieve nasal congestion.
  • Nasal saline drops or sprays: Nasal saline drops or sprays may help relieve nasal congestion and dryness. Some people use a neti pot to rinse their nasal passages and clear mucus. A neti pot is a small device that resembles a teapot. You add a saline solution (a mixture of salt and warm water), then tilt your head and pour the solution into one nostril until it flows out of the other nostril.
  • Cough suppressants: Cough suppressants containing dextromethorphan may help reduce coughing. Brands that contain dextromethorphan include Mucinex, Robitussin, and Nyquil, among others.
  • Throat lozenges: Lozenges that contain benzocaine can help soothe a sore throat. 
  • Pain relievers: Analgesics (pain relievers), such as Tylenol (acetaminophen) and Advil (ibuprofen), may help reduce fever and relieve body aches and sore throat.

If you take prescription medications, talk to your healthcare provider before taking OTC medicines. They can advise you on potential interactions between medications and which OTC treatments are best for you. 


Most URIs are viral. Therefore, antibiotics won't be effective in helping to clear the infection. Antibiotics are prescribed only for bacterial URIs or if a secondary bacterial infection, like sinusitis, develops.


Preventing a URI is not always possible, but taking certain steps can lower your chances of getting sick.

Here are some prevention strategies:

  • Wash your hands frequently with soap and water, especially after being in public spaces or around someone who's sick
  • Avoid close, prolonged contact with people who are sick 
  • Do not touch your face, nose, or mouth—especially when in public spaces or if you have not washed your hands after being around others
  • Eat a balanced, nutritious diet and exercise regularly to boost your immune system 

If you have a URI, you can help others stay healthy by being mindful of not spreading germs:

  • Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when sneezing and coughing
  • Sneeze and cough into your elbow
  • Stay home from work or school 
  • Wipe down countertops, doorknobs, and children’s toys when someone in your home has a URI 
  • Wear a facial covering when around other people


Upper respiratory don't often lead to complications, except in the case of influenza. However, it's important to treat them as needed to avoid possible complications. Young children and older adults might be more susceptible to complications,

Possible complications or URIs, especially influenza, include:

  • Pneumonia: An infection in one or both lungs that may cause them to fill with mucus
  • Bronchitis: Swelling and inflammation of your bronchial tubes, the main airways of your lungs
  • Sinusitis: A condition that causes the lining of your sinuses to become inflamed or swollen

Upper respiratory infections can also cause more severe symptoms of conditions that make breathing difficult. like asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Living With an Upper Respiratory Infection

Coming down with an upper respiratory infection can be uncomfortable, but most people recover within one to two weeks. However, it may take you a little longer to heal. If you have a URI, allow yourself to rest rather than push yourself to continue your day-to-day activities. 

Self-care can help ease discomfort. Consider using a humidifier to reduce coughing and relieve congestion, gargle with warm salt water to soothe a sore throat, and try over-the-counter pain medications to alleviate body aches and fever. 

URIs can become chronic, lasting for months. They can also lead to secondary bacterial infections and other complications. Talk to your healthcare provider if you aren’t feeling better within two weeks or if you develop new or worsening symptoms.

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Health.com uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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