Also known as: Common Cold, Influenza, Sore Throat
What is it?
The upper respiratory tract consists of the nose, nasal cavity, larynx, and trachea, as well as some of the sinuses and air cells. Upper respiratory tract infections include the common cold (rhinitis), influenza, laryngitis (inflammation of the voice box), pharyngitis (sore throat), sinusitis, tonsillitis, and croup (in children).
Who gets it?
Most people have a minimum of two colds per year. Children tend to get more upper respiratory tract infections than adults.
What causes it?
There are over 200 viruses that can cause upper respiratory tract infections. These types of viruses are extremely contagious and are spread by direct contact, such as shaking hands, sharing food or drink, and kissing. They can also be spread through coughing and sneezing. A virus can be spread from the hands to the upper respiratory tract by touching the eyes, nose, or mouth.
What are the symptoms?
The common cold has symptoms ranging from sneezing, coughing, and runny nose, to congestion, headache, and sore throat. Colds may or may not include a fever. Most common colds last for about one week. Influenza begins suddenly and causes more discomfort than a cold. In addition to cold symptoms, flu sufferers usually have high fever, headache, chills, body aches, weakness, and fatigue. Laryngitis symptoms include hoarseness and voice loss, while pharyngitis is a severe sore throat. Sore throat caused by a bacterial infection is called strep throat. The symptoms of sinusitis may follow a cold that doesn’t seem to go away and generally include headache pain and pressure in the forehead, cheek, and nasal region, in addition to cold symptoms. Tonsillitis is an inflammation of the tonsils that causes sore throat and difficulty swallowing. The most telltale symptom of croup is a harsh, bark-like breathing sound called stridor. Croup symptoms in children usually occur at night. See your doctor whenever cold symptoms do not go away within a reasonable period of time, worsen, or include high fever, earache, severe headache, and severe sore throat.
How is it diagnosed?
Upper respiratory tract infections are diagnosed according to the types and durations of symptoms. Cold symptoms that last for months, but are not caused by sinus problems, may actually be allergy-related.
What is the treatment?
The most recommended treatment for upper respiratory tract infections is rest and plenty of fluids. Over-the-counter cold, flu, and sinus remedies and pain relievers may provide temporary relief from symptoms, but do not shorten the duration of the infection. Gargling with salt water may relieve sore throat symptoms. A steaming bowl of soup can help relieve congestion by loosening nasal secretions. Antibiotics are not effective in treating viral infections and are only prescribed when the cause of symptoms is bacterial, such as with strep throat, tonsillitis, earaches, or sinus infections. The best treatment for laryngitis is to rest the voice. Repeated bouts of tonsillitis are treated with surgery to remove the infected tonsils. Mild croup can be treated at home with rest, fluids, and a humidifier. However, children with severe croup may need to be hospitalized.
If you have an upper respiratory tract infection, get plenty of rest and fluids. Call your doctor if symptoms get worse or last longer than one week. Keep mucous membranes moist with a humidifier and petroleum jelly around the nose. Saline nose-drops can also help loosen mucus. Your doctor can tell you how to make this solution and how frequently to use it. You can help prevent upper respiratory tract infections by avoiding touching your eyes, nose, and mouth, which will spread any virus your hands have contacted.