A Guide to Upper Respiratory Infections

a woman checks her sick son's temperature
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Uh oh. Sore throat, runny nose, yucky cough, drippy eyes.  You started your day feeling well, but as the day went by, you started to get sicker and sicker – the symptoms just keep piling on. This all probably sounds familiar because chances are, you’ve had an upper respiratory infection before. 

Upper respiratory infections (URIs) are common and they happen to everyone at one time or another. In 2019, there were over 17 billion worldwide cases reported. But did you know URIs are not one single illness? Here’s how to recognize a URI, the different types of infections, and what to do if you get one. 

What is an upper respiratory infection?

Let’s take it back to elementary school for a minute. Imagine one of those 3D, plastic human anatomy models.  Looking at the model, find the mouth, throat, lungs, nose, voice box, diaphragm, windpipe. See how the body parts you use to breathe and speak are all connected? That’s the respiratory system The respiratory system can be divided in half into the lower respiratory system (the lungs and windpipe) and the upper respiratory system (the throat, mouth, nose, nasal cavity, and voice box).

An infection occurs when a virus invades your respiratory tract. How do you pick up a virus? You can pick it up anywhere by simply touching a surface or shaking a hand that has the bacteria on it and then touching your nose or mouth. Respiratory infections are more common than other types of infections because of how we interact with the world. Upper respiratory infections are more common than lower. This is a good thing because lower respiratory infections (LRIs) are usually more severe.

Some of the most common kinds of URIs include:

  • The common cold
  • Sinus infection
  • Laryngitis
  • Sore throat (pharyngitis)
  • Epiglottitis
  • Laryngitis

Symptoms of upper respiratory infection

After a virus makes itself comfortable in your upper respiratory system, symptoms will follow. They’ll vary depending on the type of infection, but there are some that pop up in most cases. These include:

  • Fever
  • Coughing
  • Nasal congestion (difficult to breathe through nose)
  • Sore or scratchy throat
  • Runny nose
  • Pain while swallowing
  • Sneezing

Less common symptoms can include:

  • Headache
  • Diarrhea
  • Difficulty breathing (shortness of breath)
  • Itchy or watery eyes
  • Halitosis (bad breach)
  • Aching body
  • Vomiting

Also dependent on the type of infection, symptoms often last from a few days to two weeks.

What can you do for an upper respiratory infection at home?

Most URIs are viral infections, which means antibiotics won’t work to fight them. Most URIs don’t require a doctor’s visit, but you should still take steps to get healthy and the infection will usually pass on its own. Try these tips: :

  • Drink plenty of fluids – Stick mostly to plain water, but some juice and lemon water also help. Stay away from drinks containing caffeine or alcohol, as these can dehydrate you and weaken your immune system.
  • Gargle some saltwater – Sore throats are often the most unpleasant symptoms of a URI. It may sound strange, but saltwater can help. Dissolve half a teaspoon of salt into an eight-ounce glass of water, then gargle as needed.
  • Saline nasal drops – If nasal congestion is a major problem, these drops will help. Kids can use them too to help clear out all that yucky snot.
  • Keep the air in your house moist – URIs thrive in winter, when the cold air is often very dry. Cold, dry air is terrible for your symptoms. Use a humidifier to keep air moist to help with congestion and coughing. Just remember to keep it clean! Dirty humidifiers can grow mold and bacteria, which are the opposite things you want to be exposed to when recovering from a URI.
  • Get plenty of sleep and rest – If possible, stay home from work or school, especially if your symptoms include coughing and fever. Get as much sleep as your body will allow and take it easy while awake. Luckily, when you feel terrible these directions are pretty easy to follow.
  • Have some soup – Chicken noodle soup isn’t just a trick to get kids to eat veggies! Soothing warm broth can ease congestion, and hearty, lean protein like chicken also helps you recover. Most types of broth-based soup are good, but avoid  creamier varieties.
  • Use over-the-counter medication – Your local pharmacy or supermarket can provide some over-the-counter medications that will ease your symptoms, like antihistamines, decongestants, and pain relievers. These will only help your symptoms though, and be sure to talk with a doctor for kids under five. 

When should you visit a doctor for a URI?

Home remedies aren’t helping? There are some times where you’re better off visiting a doctor to be safe. If you’re considered high-risk for the flu, you should see a doctor for an URI. High-risk groups include both seniors over sixty-five and children under five, as well as anyone with a weakened immune system or a chronic respiratory or cardiovascular illness. However, no matter who you are, you should head to the doctor’s office if you have one of the following symptoms. These include:

  • Symptoms that get worse instead of better, especially for longer than ten days
  • Severe difficulty breathing or coughing that won’t quit
  • Severe fatigue lasting for multiple days
  • Pain in chest
  • Extreme sinus pain
  • No urine or very little urine
  • Sore throat persisting for over a week
  • A fever over 102 degrees lasting for over three days
  • Swollen glands in neck or jaw

If your symptoms are more severe it might be strep throat or pneumonia, so seek treatment immediately. The symptoms can be similar, but you might need antibiotics or another type of medical help to recover. 

Integrity Urgent Care is here to help

If you are worried about a URI and you’d like to see a medical professional, Integrity Urgent Care is here to help you. We offer much quicker treatment than a traditional doctor’s office and a far cheaper bill than an ER, making us the perfect place to come for fast, affordable treatment. Find the Integrity Urgent Care location closest to you and walk-in or check-in online today.

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