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The Call-On-Doc Guide to Upper Respiratory Infections

Published on Apr 27, 2023 | 10:17 AM

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As the name implies, an upper respiratory infection is a condition that infects any part of the upper respiratory system, from the nasal cavities down to the larynx. 

While most URIs can go away on their own, symptoms affecting your head, throat, eyes, and nose can lead to discomfort and may need treatment to go away. As one of the most common diagnoses, StatPearls details that the virus usually makes itself known around three days after exposure. Upper respiratory infections then usually last between 7-10 days, but symptoms can linger for up to three weeks.  Varying in severity, the condition can be either viral or bacterial depending on onset, symptoms, duration, and treatment. 

How do I know if my upper respiratory infection is viral or bacterial?

While both share several similarities with one another, such as how the infection is caught and how to treat it in some cases, there are some subtle differences throughout the process. According to Bethany Chico, these can include: 

  • Onset of symptoms: Symptoms of viral URIs typically develop gradually over a period of several days, while symptoms of bacterial URIs may develop more suddenly.
  • Type of symptoms: Viral URIs tend to cause more nasal symptoms, such as a runny or stuffy nose, sneezing, and sore throat. Bacterial URIs may cause more severe symptoms, such as high fever, sinus pain, severe sore throat, and difficulty breathing.
  • Duration of symptoms: Viral URIs tend to last for 5-7 days, although some symptoms may persist for up to two weeks. Bacterial URIs may last longer and can sometimes lead to more serious complications if left untreated.
  • Color of mucus: A common myth is that mucus color can assist in determining if an infection is viral or bacterial; however, research has debunked this. Both viral and bacterial infections can have yellow, green, clear, or white mucus. 
  • Treatment: Treatment for viral and bacterial URIs may differ. Viral URIs usually resolve on their own within a week or two with, and treatment focusing focuses on relieving symptoms. Bacterial URIs may require antibiotics to clear the infection.

How do you know if you have an upper respiratory infection?

In many cases, an upper respiratory infection will be confused with seasonal allergies due to similar symptoms. In most scenarios, the condition will come with symptoms like:

  • Congestion
  • Coughing
  • Runny nose
  • Sore throat

As detailed by Johns Hopkins, the condition is so common to the point that children will each have up to eight cases in any given year while adults generally experience a URI annually. While most URIs are non-threatening, in the event that the condition is more severe, there are some telltale signs. According to Bethany Chico, an experienced nurse practitioner working with Call-On-Doc, some signs healthcare providers look for include:

  • Persistent symptoms: Symptoms lasting greater than 7-10 days. 
  • Dehydration: If you are unable to keep fluids down, have a dry mouth, or are urinating less, then you may be dehydrated and require medical attention. 
  • High fever: A fever for several days or a fever that is higher than 102 may be a sign of a more severe infection.
  • Strained breathing: Difficulty breathing, shortness of breath, wheezing, or chest pain can be signs of a more serious condition such as pneumonia. if you or a loved one are experiencing any or all of these, seek medical attention immediately. 

Despite most cases being relatively minor in severity, some patients will need medical consultation and treatment to get relief for symptoms that fall under a URI-related condition. You might recognize some of the conditions considered as an upper respiratory infection, like influenza. 

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What is considered an upper respiratory infection?

An upper respiratory infection is a type of infection that specifically affects the upper respiratory tract, which includes the nasal passages, pharynx, and larynx. In contrast, other types of infections may affect different parts of the body, such as the lungs, urinary tract, or skin. A URI is typically caused by various respiratory pathogens, while other infections may be caused by different types of pathogens, such as bacteria, viruses, fungi, or parasites.

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What causes upper respiratory infections?

According to WebMD, upper respiratory infections are primarily spread through respiratory droplets. These are tiny particles of saliva or mucus that are expelled when an infected person talks, coughs, or sneezes. These droplets can then be inhaled by others or deposited on surfaces and objects, where they can remain infectious for hours or even days. This is one reason why washing your fruits and vegetables from the grocery store is a good idea. Other modes of transmission, such as direct contact with an infected person or contaminated surfaces, can also contribute to the spread of URIs.

Should you stay home if you have an upper respiratory infection?

According to Bethany Chico: Yes, it is generally recommended that you stay home when you have an upper respiratory infection to prevent the spread of the illness to others. Upper respiratory infections are highly contagious and can be transmitted through respiratory droplets when you cough or sneeze. By staying home, you can help prevent the spread of the illness to coworkers, classmates, friends, and family members. It is also important to rest and take care of yourself when you are sick to help your body recover more quickly.

When should I see a doctor for an upper respiratory infection?

While you are encouraged to seek out medical treatment whenever symptoms become difficult to tolerate or last longer than a couple of weeks, there are some symptoms to keep an eye out for. These can include:

  • High fever: A fever over 101 degrees Fahrenheit can be a sign of a more severe infection and may require medical attention.
  • Shortness of breath: Difficulty breathing, or shortness of breath can indicate a more severe infection or complications, such as pneumonia, and should be evaluated by a healthcare professional.
  • Chest pain: Chest pain can be a sign of complications, such as pneumonia or bronchitis, and should be evaluated by a healthcare professional.
  • Worsening symptoms: If symptoms are not improving after a few days or are getting worse, this can indicate a more severe infection or complications and may require medical attention.
  • Underlying health conditions: People with underlying health conditions, such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, may be at higher risk for complications from a URI and should seek medical attention if they develop symptoms.
  • Immunocompromised state: People with weakened immune systems, such as those undergoing chemotherapy or with HIV/AIDS, should seek medical attention if they develop symptoms of a URI.

How do doctors know if you have a respiratory infection?

When it comes to what healthcare providers look out for, Bethany Chico explains there are some factors considered to identify upper respiratory infections. 

  • We ask about the patient’s symptoms and the severity of their symptoms as well as how long they’ve had a: 
    • Cough 
    • Congestion
    • Runny nose
    • Sore throat 
    • Swelling or redness in the throat/tonsils
    • Wheezing or trouble breathing

When it comes to the symptoms, medical professionals have more ways than one to measure the severity of each. Bethany Chico goes on to explain that symptoms having to do with upper respiratory infections largely have to do with how they affect daily tasks while keeping the spread in consideration

Even though URIs vary in severity, staying home to recover can help lower the spread of infection and prevent more people from getting sick. 

how-do-doctors-know-if-you-have-a-respiratory-infection

What tests are done for an upper respiratory infection?

There are a number of tests that can be done to diagnose upper respiratory infections (URIs), depending on the specific cause and severity of the infection. Some common tests for URIs include:

  • Rapid antigen tests: These tests can quickly detect the presence of certain viruses, such as influenza or respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), in respiratory secretions.
  • Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests: These tests use genetic material to identify the specific virus or bacteria causing the infection. PCR tests are highly sensitive and can detect low levels of pathogens.
  • Blood tests: Blood tests can detect antibodies or other markers of infection, which can help identify the specific cause of the URI.
  • Chest X-ray: A chest X-ray can help diagnose pneumonia or other complications of a URI.

Tests for upper respiratory infections are not always necessary, and in many cases, a healthcare provider can make a diagnosis based on the individual's symptoms and medical history. More so, normally, a healthcare professional will opt to either monitor. or manage the symptoms until it wears off.

Do I need to go to the doctor for a respiratory infection?

Due to most cases of upper respiratory infections being mild colds or similar diseases, it’s a fair question to ask whether you need to go to the doctor in the first place. In the case that you do, Call-On-Doc offers affordable URI treatment that does not require you to leave your home. In more severe cases, it is important to consider visiting a medical provider in-person for evaluation.

It's also important to seek medical attention if you have been exposed to someone with a known respiratory infection, such as COVID-19 or influenza (flu), or if you develop any symptoms of COVID-19, such as fever, cough, or loss of taste or smell. In general, if you are unsure whether you need medical attention for a URI, it's always best to contact your healthcare provider for guidance.

How do doctors treat an upper respiratory infection?

When treating an upper respiratory infection, doctors aim to manage the symptoms and help the body fight off the infection. Treatment options depend on the infection and underlying cause. Which can be viral or bacterial. In most cases, doctors may recommend rest, hydration, over-the-counter medications for symptom relief, and using a humidifier to help alleviate congestion. If the infection is bacterial or severe, antibiotics or other prescription medications may be prescribed. It's important to follow the doctor's instructions for treatment and finish the entire course of medication, even if symptoms improve.

Do you need antibiotics for upper respiratory infections?

Whether or not antibiotics are needed for an upper respiratory infection (URI) depends on the underlying cause of the infection. If the URI is caused by a viral infection, antibiotics will not be effective in treating it. Rather, other medications will be used to manage the symptoms and keep a person in the best health possible so their system can fight off the disease. 

However, if the URI is caused by a bacterial infection or a secondary bacterial infection develops, antibiotics may be necessary. It's important to consult with a doctor to determine the underlying cause of the URI and whether antibiotics are necessary. In general, antibiotics should only be used when medically necessary to help prevent antibiotic resistance.

How do you make URI go away faster?

There are several steps you can take to get over an upper respiratory infection. Here are several steps you can do to get over an upper respiratory infection:

  • Rest: It's important to rest and allow your body to recover. Avoid overexertion and try to get plenty of sleep.
  • Hydration: Drink plenty of fluids, such as water, tea, and soup. This can help loosen mucus and prevent dehydration.
  • Humidity: Use a humidifier or take a steamy shower to help relieve congestion and soothe a sore throat.
  • Over-the-counter medications: If you need to treat your URI with antibiotics, consider also using over-the-counter medications to help alleviate other symptoms such as ibuprofen to relieve pain and reduce fever.
  • Gargling: Gargle with salt water to help soothe a sore throat.
  • Avoid irritants: Avoid smoking and exposure to secondhand smoke, as well as other irritants such as air pollution and chemicals.
  • Healthy diet: Eat a healthy, balanced diet to help boost your immune system and aid in recovery.
  • Good hygiene: Practice good hygiene, such as washing your hands frequently and covering your mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing, to prevent the spread of infection.

Additionally, It's important to note that antibiotics are not effective in treating viral infections such as URIs, and their overuse can contribute to antibiotic resistance. If symptoms persist or worsen after a few days, or if you are experiencing severe symptoms, seek medical attention for further evaluation and treatment.

Misconceptions regarding URIs

  1. Misconception: Antibiotics are effective against viral infections. 
    • Fact: Antibiotics are only effective against bacterial infections and are not effective against viral infections such as URIs. Overuse of antibiotics can contribute to antibiotic resistance.
  2. Misconception: Rest isn't important when recovering from a URI. 
    • Fact: Rest is crucial for recovery as it helps the body to conserve energy and focus on fighting the infection.
  3. Misconception: Over-the-counter cold medicines are always safe to take. 
    • Fact: Over-the-counter cold medicines may contain multiple ingredients, some of which may not be safe for everyone. Always check with a healthcare professional before taking any new medication.
  4. Misconception: Vitamin C can prevent or cure a cold. 
    • Fact: While vitamin C is important for a healthy immune system, there is no evidence that taking high doses of vitamin C can prevent or cure a cold or URI.
  5. Misconception: Starving a fever is necessary. 
    • Fact: It is important to maintain a healthy diet when recovering from a URI as the body needs nutrients to fight off the infection.
  6. Misconception: Green or yellow mucus always indicates a bacterial infection. 
    • Fact: Green or yellow mucus can be a sign of a viral or bacterial infection, and it is not always a reliable indicator of the type of infection.

What plays the biggest role in URI prevention?

The immune system plays the biggest role in a person's defense against upper respiratory infections. The immune system is responsible for recognizing and attacking invading pathogens, such as viruses and bacteria, that cause URIs.

When the immune system recognizes a pathogen, it produces antibodies that can help neutralize and eliminate the pathogen. It also activates various immune cells, such as white blood cells, that can help clear the infection.

In addition to the immune system, other factors can also play a role in a person's defense against URIs. These can include:

  • Age: Children and the elderly are more susceptible to URIs due to weaker immune systems.
  • Nutrition: A healthy, balanced diet can help support the immune system and aid in the prevention of URIs.
  • Sleep: Sufficient sleep can help boost the immune system and aid in the prevention of URIs.
  • Hygiene: Good hygiene practices, such as frequent hand washing and covering the mouth when coughing or sneezing, can help prevent the spread of infection.
  • Vaccination: Vaccines can help protect against certain viruses that can cause URIs, such as the flu and COVID-19. 

Overall, a strong immune system is key to preventing and fighting URIs. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle, practicing good hygiene, and getting vaccinated when possible can all help support a healthy immune system and aid in the prevention of URIs.

What should a person avoid when trying to stay healthy?

There are several habits that can make a person more vulnerable to upper respiratory infections:

  • Smoking: Smoking damages the lining of the respiratory system, making it more vulnerable to infections. It also weakens the immune system, making it harder to fight off infections.
  • Vaping: Although research is ongoing, vaping is thought to have similar effects on the respiratory system as smoking, which can increase the risk of URIs.
  • Poor nutrition: A diet that is low in essential nutrients, such as vitamins and minerals, can weaken the immune system and increase the risk of URIs.
  • Lack of sleep: Sufficient sleep is important for a healthy immune system. Lack of sleep can weaken the immune system, making it harder to fight off infections.
  • Stress: Chronic stress can also weaken the immune system and increase the risk of URIs.
  • Poor hygiene: Poor hygiene practices, such as not washing hands frequently or sharing utensils, can increase the risk of infections.
  • Exposure to pollutants: Exposure to pollutants, such as air pollution and chemicals, can damage the respiratory system and increase the risk of URIs.

While URIs are common and, for the most part, cannot be avoided, recognizing ways to prevent exposure and reduce your risk for infection during peak cold and flu seasons can help you and your family stay their healthiest. If you or a loved one does come down with a URI and need relief, Call-On-Doc can support you all from the comfort of home any time, day or night.

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Wayne C. Hahne,

English graduate and Call-On-Doc’s medical resource guide, Wayne C. Hahne is an experienced and passionate medical education content expert. Through diligent research, provider interviews and utilizing the industry's leading resources for wellness information, it is Mr. Hahne’s personal mission to educate the general public on medical conditions with in-depth and easy-to-understand written guides.

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