What To Do About Frequent Upper Respiratory Infections
While respiratory infections are more common in the fall and winter, they can occur at any time of the year. This and their similar symptoms mean that common colds are frequently confused with allergies. It is important to distinguish the two conditions because their treatment is different.
Most adults don’t get as many upper respiratory infections as children do because they have already been exposed to some viruses. They rarely have as close physical contact as young children in schools and daycares do. Adults have an average of three to five upper respiratory infections per year.1 Each infection lasts about 7 to 10 days. Uncomplicated upper respiratory infections account for 20 to 22 million missed workdays in the United States annually.2
When you have recurring upper respiratory infections, it may be due to frequent contact with people with infections, such as working in a daycare or medical setting; but it could also be because your immune system is compromised in some way or you have allergies instead of a cold.3
Are Upper Respiratory Infections Contagious?
Yes, upper respiratory infections are contagious. Viruses cause the vast majority of them and are spread by droplets or aerosolized, but some are also caused by bacteria and fungi.
If you have an upper respiratory infection and cough or sneeze, mucus droplets laden with viral particles are transmitted through the air. If these particles land on someone’s eyes or nose or they touch an infected surface and touch their eyes or nose, they may also get an infection.
Telemedicine is a great way to get the medical care you need from remote doctors in a safe and convenient environment.
What Causes Upper Respiratory Infections?
Most upper respiratory infections cause inflammation of the nose and throat. Common symptoms include sore throat, runny nose, congestion, and mild sinus pressure. Most of the time, these infections are viral, and it is not helpful to identify the exact cause because the treatment is the same.
There are over 200 different viral strains, but they can be classified into six families:3
- Respiratory syncytial virus
Common Upper Respiratory Illnesses
Upper respiratory infections affect the following organs and cause these symptoms:
- Mouth: sore throat, itchiness, dryness
- Nose: runny nose, congestion, and itchiness
- Throat: sore throat, dryness
- Larynx (voice box): hoarseness
- Trachea (windpipe): coughing, wheezing
Upper respiratory infections are named after the body part that is infected. For example:3
Epiglottitis is an infection of the epiglottis, a flap of tissue covering the entrance into the lungs.
Laryngitis/laryngotracheitis is an infection of the larynx, more common in preschool children.
Pharyngitis is an infection of the pharynx or throat; the peak season is the winter and early spring. Pharyngitis is caused by multiple viruses and group A β-hemolytic streptococcus (strep throat). Strep throat is diagnosed with a rapid test or a throat culture.
Nasopharyngitis is an infection of the nose and throat, commonly called a common cold, that is widespread at peak times of the year and easily spreads from person to person.
Sinusitis is an infection of the sinuses that commonly begins as viral and becomes secondarily infected with bacteria. Sinuses are air-filled cavities in the facial bones. Sinuses make the head lighter and allow for resonance in speech. Because they are chambers drained by a single opening, it is not unusual for the opening into the sinuses to swell shut and trap fluid in the sinuses.
Frequently, sinusitis starts with a viral infection, and the sinuses become secondarily infected with bacteria. Your doctor will differentiate viral sinusitis from bacterial based on your symptoms, illness length, and the physical exam.
What if I Get Frequent Upper Respiratory Infections?
Most of the time, upper respiratory infections are self-limited. If you have persistent or worsening symptoms or recurrent infections, talk to your doctor. You may have an underlying health condition that predisposes you to infections.
Risk factors for recurrent infections include:
- Working as a healthcare worker, childcare provider, or in another environment where you are exposed to people with infections
- Smoking or being exposed to secondhand smoke
- Having a neurologic condition that makes it harder for you to swallow, clear your throat, or cough
- Living in dry, cold conditions
- Having allergies
- Being sleep deprived
- Having an immune deficiency
- Taking a medication that impacts your immune system, such as corticosteroids
Avoiding Upper Respiratory Infection
The single best way to avoid or prevent upper respiratory infections is to wash your hands. Viral particles must be transported into your eyes or nose to make you sick. If you frequently wash your hands and avoid touching your face, you can reduce your risk of infection.
If you are prone to upper respiratory infections, avoid contact with people who are sick and being in close quarters with many people.
Upper Respiratory Infection Treatment
Since most upper respiratory infections are viral in origin, symptomatic care is the usual first treatment.
Try some of these to reduce your cold symptoms:
- Get plenty of rest.
- Use a vaporizer to loosen secretions.
- Saline nasal rinse or drops to moisturize your nose and reduce congestion.
- Elevate the head of your bed at night.
- Suck on throat lozenges.
- Drink plenty of fluids.
- Avoid exposure to irritants such as cigarette smoke.
- Consume a healthy diet high in nutrients and antioxidants.
Over-the-counter and prescription medications can also relieve symptoms.
- Decongestants reduce swelling in the nose and sinuses, making it easier for mucus to drain and for you to breathe.
- Antihistamines dry up runny noses and eyes and reduce itching.
- Cough suppressants can be locally acting or bind to receptors in the brain to suppress coughing.
- Expectorants help loosen mucus when coughing, though their effectiveness is questionable.
- Nasal steroids can reduce swelling and inflammation in the nose and are commonly used long-term.
Check with your doctor before taking these medications if you have chronic health conditions such as high blood pressure and diabetes.
When Should I See a Doctor?
If your symptoms persist or you think you may have a bacterial infection, you can get a prescription online by talking with a telemedicine doctor. Online prescriptions can be sent to your local pharmacy for pickup or delivered to your home. Bacterial infections are treated with antibiotics.4,5 These classes of medication require a prescription.
While we strive to always provide accurate, current, and safe advice in all of our articles and guides, it’s important to stress that they are no substitute for medical advice from a doctor or healthcare provider. You should always consult a practicing professional who can diagnose your specific case. The content we’ve included in this guide is merely meant to be informational and does not constitute medical advice.
1. Weintraub B. Upper Respiratory Tract Infections. Pediatr Rev. Dec 2015;36(12):554-6. doi:10.1542/pir.36-12-554
2. Heikkinen T, Järvinen A. The common cold. Lancet. Jan 4 2003;361(9351):51-9. doi:10.1016/s0140-6736(03)12162-9
3. Grief SN. Upper respiratory infections. Prim Care. Sep 2013;40(3):757-70. doi:10.1016/j.pop.2013.06.004
4. Raghav H, Tayal P, Das R, Mehta DK. Appropriate Use of Antibiotics for the Management of Respiratory Tract Infections. Infect Disord Drug Targets. 2022;22(5):36-46. doi:10.2174/1871526522666220118122516
5. Sur DKC, Plesa ML. Antibiotic Use in Acute Upper Respiratory Tract Infections. Am Fam Physician. Dec 2022;106(6):628-636.