Just about everyone has had an upper respiratory infection.  A stuffy nose and sneezing develop into a runny nose and a cough—these symptoms, commonly associated with seasonal colds, are signs of an upper respiratory infection.

Symptoms of upper respiratory infections include runny or stuffy nose, low-grade fever, chills, cough, headache, sore throat, wheezing, fatigue, chest congestion, and pressure in your face and sinus area. Symptoms are usually mild and do not cause complications, resolving on their own within 7-10 days. In most cases, antibiotics are not needed to treat upper respiratory infections because most infections are caused by viruses. Antibiotics can only treat bacterial infections.

The coughing and sneezing characteristic of an upper respiratory infection spread the virus in airborne droplets of spit and mucus or via direct hand-to-hand contact. When you’re sick, help protect others by staying home or wearing a mask if you do have to go out. As always, sneeze into your elbow and frequently wash your hands after blowing your nose or touching your face.

The same viruses that caused the upper respiratory infection can develop into acute bronchitis in some people. Pneumonia can then develop as a complicationof acute bronchitis (Johns Hopkins Medicine).

When to See Your Doctor

According to the Mayo Clinic, you should seek medical attention if you have the symptoms listed below. Contact your doctor's office if you are unsure whether or not to seek medical attention, or what level of care is right for you.

For adults:  

  • Fever greater than 101.3 degrees 
  • Fever lasting for five days, or returning after a fever-free period
  • Shortness of breath
  • Wheezing
  • Severe sore throat, headache, or sinus pain

For children:

  • Fever of 100.4 degrees in newborns up to 12 weeks
  • Rising fever or fever lasting more than two days in a child of any age
  • Symptoms that worsen or fail to improve
  • Severe symptoms, such as headache or persistent cough
  • Wheezing
  • Ear pain
  • Extreme fussiness
  • Unusual drowsiness
  • Lack of appetite

Treatment

If symptoms do not resolve or they get worse over time, it is best to speak with a doctor.

Treatment for an upper respiratory infection and acute bronchitis generally involves limiting discomfort. Some people benefit from the use of cough suppressants, expectorants, nasal decongestants, steam inhalation, and medicine to help reduce fever, aches, and pains.  Your health plan’s nurse line or doctor’s office can advise you on at-home treatments, or if you should see a doctor.

The following actions can help reduce the severity or duration of the symptoms:

  • Drink plenty of fluids but avoid alcohol and caffeine  
  • Increase indoor humidity
  • Rest
  • Use soft tissues when blowing your nose
  • Apply petroleum jelly to sore areas, which may include the lips and nostrils
  • Avoid smoky or fume-filled areas
  • Avoid steep temperature changes

 Prevention

Upper respiratory infections are contagious. Help reduce the spread by doing the following: 

  • Take care of yourself, eat well, exercise, get plenty of rest, and manage your stress 
  • Wash your hands frequently and/or use a hand sanitizer after touching your face
  • Wear a mask
  • Cover your mouth when coughing or sneezing 
  • Avoid sharing items like cups and lip balm
  • Stay at home when you are not feeling well
  • Get a flu shot annually
  • Avoid smoking and secondhand smoke
Was this page helpful?