HealthCareMagic is now Ask A Doctor - 24x7 |

Get your health question answered instantly from our pool of 18000+ doctors from over 80 specialties
159 Doctors Online

By proceeding, I accept the Terms and Conditions

Dr. Andrew Rynne
Dr. Andrew Rynne

Family Physician

Exp 50 years

HCM Blog Instant Access to Doctors
HCM BlogQuestions Answered
HCM Blog Satisfaction
Article Home Adult and Senior Health Upper Respiratory Tract Infections: A Layman's Guide

Upper Respiratory Tract Infections: A Layman's Guide

Although upper respiratory tract infections (URTIs) occur throughout the year, winters typically bring a surge in their occurrence. This happens because viruses causing these infections thrive in cold and dry conditions. In addition, we tend to spend more time indoors in close contact with each other, which promotes the spread of infections. The dry winter air also makes the respiratory passages more susceptible to infections. This article will help you understand the basics of URTIs and can help you manage these common infections better.


What is upper respiratory tract?




The respiratory tract includes the parts of your body that are involved in breathing. Doctors often distinguish these parts into the upper respiratory tract, and the lower respiratory tract. The upper respiratory tract consists of: the nose, sinuses - air-filled cavities in cheekbones and forehead, throat and tonsils,pharynx – area at the back of the throat, and larynx or ‘voice box’. The upper respiratory tract is quite prone to infections because disease causing germs such as bacteria and viruses can easily reach these parts along with the air that we breathe in.


What are the common URTIs?

Most of us would be familiar with the names of the common upper respiratory tract infections. They include:



  • Common cold- most common URTI
  • Sore throat  - usually due to an infection of the pharynx (pharyngitis)
  • Tonsillitis - infection of the tonsils
  • Sinusitis - infection of the sinuses
  • Laryngitis - infection of the larynx




How do I recognize it's URTI?





URTIs cause a set of common and overlapping symptoms and it is often difficult to pinpoint the exact source of infection. This is the prime reason why doctors often describe and treat them as URTI rather than a particular condition. Typical symptoms of URTIs are stuffed or runny nose, sore throat and cough. Headache, sneezing, body aches are also often present. If the sinuses are affected, pain or pressure may be felt around your eyes, nose, or in your cheeks. Sinus pain typically gets worse when coughing, straining, or lying on the back. Fever is often present in case of sinusitis.


What causes URTIs?UTRI

Most URTIs are caused by viruses. More than 200 different viruses can cause URTIs. However, the most common culprits belong to one of the two groups of viruses- the rhinoviruses and coronaviruses. The reason why we can have common cold several times during the year and do not become immune to it is that each episode may be caused by a different virus. A large number of cases ofLRTIs are also caused by viruses. However, pneumonia is mostly bacterial in origin, with an agent calledStreptococcus pneumoniaecausing a large proportion of cases.


What else can look like URTI?




Some common conditions that cause symptoms similar to URTIs are lower respiratory infections (LRTIs), allergic rhinitis, and flu. It is important to distinguish these diseases from URTI as the course of treatment varies.  More importantly, a doctor’s advice and prescription will most likely be required if it is an LRTI. Symptoms that point towards an LRTI are severe cough that brings up phlegm or is blood stained, fever with chills, a feeling of tightness in your chest, breathlessness or wheezing.



When to see a Doctor?





Most URTIs resolve with self-care at home with or without over-the-counter (OTC) medicines. It is advisable to seek a doctor’s advice early if symptoms indicate a possible LRTI. The elderly above 65 years, very young children, and people with heart disease or diabetes should also seek a doctor’s attention for URTIs.




How to care for yourself?

Symptoms of upper respiratory infections will take some time to resolve and there are no magic cures for it. But the good news is that some simple self-care measures can help you make much less miserable:




  1. Lots of fluids, preferably warm? Drinking enough fluids will help you feel better and recover faster as it promotes drainage of secretions. So keep drinking warm water, tea and soup at regular intervals.
  2. Avoid alcohol, coffee and cigarettes? Alcohol and coffee are dehydrating. Cigarette smoke is a top respiratory irritant. Staying away from these three is a good idea if you are suffering from an URTI.
  3. Soothe your throat? Gargling with warm salt water several times a day is one of the most effective remedies for a scratchy and painful throat. Drinking warm lemon water with honey may also help soothe a sore throat. Chewing on some cloves also provides relief from throat pain.
  4. Steam inhalation? If you have a congested nose, with headache, or a sensation of pain or pressure around your eyes and nose, inhale steam two to four times during the day for about ten minutes. Adding some Vicks Vapo-Rub to the water will further help in relieving congestion (take care to avoid getting the Vicks containing steam in your eyes as it can cause irritation).
  5. Try chicken soup? Chicken soup has gained credibility as a home remedy for cold since it has shown benefit in some scientifically conducted studies. You may want to try some to relieve your symptoms. Even vegetable soup with pepper and garlic will be soothing though it is yet to be tested by scientists.
  6. Stay warm? Keeping your room warm will definitely make you feel better, but avoid overheating the room. Using a vaporizer to moisten your room air will help ease congestion and coughing. 
  7. Antibiotics are usually NOT required? Antibiotics are medicines that fight bacteria and not viruses. They are usually not recommended for treating URTIs because as stated earlier, most URTIs are caused by viruses. Over-using/ misusing antibiotics to treat URTIs only makes them less effective in case they are required for more serious bacterial illnesses. Your doctor may recommend an antibiotic if a LRTI is suspected or for some severe types of sinusitis or sore throat. But this should entirely be your doctor’s discretion. It is not advisable to self-medicate with antibiotics.
  8. Over-the-counter medicines? In addition to the above self-care measures you may need some over-the-counter (OTC) drugs for relief of pain, fever and nasal congestion. Talk to a doctor to get the right OTC medicines that can help you feel better.