When a virus enters your respiratory system, this can result in an upper respiratory infection. This often presents as the common cold, but can sometimes develop into more complex conditions such as pharyngitis, sinusitis, or laryngitis. Infections of this nature are among the most common reasons that patients reach out to us at Text2MD. Our physicians have some advice for how to recognize and treat respiratory infections, and hopefully, avoid them in the first place.
What Is the Most Common Cause of Upper Respiratory Infections?
We have all experienced congestion, a runny nose, sore throat, and cough – these are the hallmarks of an upper respiratory infection (URI). Symptoms can vary widely from the relatively mild ones we experience with a common cold, to the misery we might experience with a severe viral or bacterial infection. In all cases, a URI originates from a common source – a virus (or less commonly, bacteria) that enters a person’s respiratory tract through their mouth or nose.
Recognizing the Early Signs of Respiratory Trouble
Once a virus enters our system, it can spark symptoms very quickly. In some cases, addressing your symptoms early can stop them from developing into a more serious illness. In other cases, a URI can hit us very suddenly with severe symptoms that can be more difficult to treat. While there is no “cure” for upper respiratory infections, there are ways to make even severe symptoms more manageable, which we delve into later in this article.
The Root Cause of Most Upper Respiratory Infections (URIs)
While bacteria can cause a URI, most infections of this nature are caused by a virus. The common cold is a viral infection and by far the most prevalent of all URIs. A cold is typically the result of being exposed to either a coronavirus or rhinovirus, of which there are many different varieties. Since there are so many different mutations of these viruses, humans can never build up immunity to them all, which is why we keep getting colds over and over again.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, adults are infected with two to three colds per year. Children are even more vulnerable to these viruses and may contract up to four colds over the course of an average cold and flu season. While most colds are harmless, they can sometimes develop into a more severe illness, which is why it’s important to manage symptoms as much as possible.
How Do We Become Exposed to These Viruses?
If you touch an infected surface or shake a sick person’s hand, and then touch your own nose, mouth, or eyes, this is sometimes all it takes to become infected. In other cases, you might be standing close to an infected person and breathing in the airborne droplets that they have recently exhaled. In many cases, your immune response will be sufficient to neutralize this viral exposure fairly quickly, but in some cases, this exposure will result in a full-blown infection.
If you have recently been exposed to the same virus, you are more likely to ramp up a strong immune response and not get sick. Becoming ill from the exact same virus more than once in the course of a cold and flu season is very unlikely.
Why Virus Transmission Is More Common in Cold Weather
When outdoor temperatures plummet, we tend to spend more time inside in close proximity to other people. This is one reason why we are more likely to get a URI in the winter, but the cold weather itself is also to blame. While it’s an “old wives’ tales” that you can get a cold just from being cold, the fact is that cold, dry weather creates the ideal conditions for viruses to thrive.
Many studies also suggest that viruses have an easier time invading our bodies in the winter because our immune response is lower at this time of year. Less vitamin D due to reduced sun exposure is at least partially to blame, but there is likely more to it. A 2015 study by the National Academy of Science found that exposing airways to lower temperatures significantly lowered the immune response of airway cells against rhinovirus.
How To Reduce your Chance of Infection
As we have learned throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, maintaining a reasonable distance from other people and frequent handwashing will reduce our exposure to both coronaviruses and rhinoviruses. Masking (or at least covering our mouths when we cough or sneeze) will help to reduce transmission to other people. Getting a flu shot and Covid vaccine is definitely recommended.
If members of your household have URI symptoms, keeping your distance can be more difficult. In this case, it is recommended to frequently wipe down high-touch surfaces with an antibacterial spray or disposable wipe. Investing in air filtration units that can be placed in high-traffic areas of your home is also a great idea to help filter viral particles and bacteria out of the air.
Treating an Acute URI
A common cold can usually be dealt with at home using simple self-care techniques and an over-the-counter cold medication. Nasal decongestants, cough suppressants, expectorants, vitamin C, and zinc can be helpful for symptom relief and to shorten the duration of a cold. Inhaling warm steam, using a neti pot, and gargling with salt water can also help to relieve many URI symptoms. These measures are not a cure but can certainly make you more comfortable.
If you have more severe inflammation of the mucous membranes, coupled with fever, headache, fatigue, wheezing, and difficulty swallowing, you should seek medical attention. You doctor might order a throat swab or chest x-ray to ensure a more precise diagnosis. In some cases, an antibiotic or anti-viral medication may be prescribed.
What Is the Difference Between Upper and Lower Respiratory Infections?
While URIs are associated with the common cold (or, in more severe case, tonsillitis, sinusitis, or laryngitis), a lower respiratory infection (LRI) is usually diagnosed as pneumonia or bronchitis. Tuberculosis also affects the lower respiratory tract, although it is very rare to find this life-threatening condition today since most people are vaccinated for TB in childhood.
A URI generates the cold-like symptoms we noted earlier, while an LRI is distinguished primarily by a mucous-producing cough. People suffering from an LRI might also experience wheezing, breathlessness, and tightness in the chest. Infections of the lower respiratory tract do tend to be more severe than a typical URI and have more potential to develop into a serious condition such as pneumonia. If you think you have an LRI, definitely seek medical support.
Where Does the Flu Fit In?
Both the common cold and the flu are contagious viral respiratory infections, however the flu can affect both the upper and lower respiratory tract. While the symptoms can be quite similar, anyone who has experienced the flu knows that it is much more severe than any cold. A typical influenza infection may last anywhere from four to seven days, with some symptoms persisting for even longer than this.
In addition to the congestion, coughing, and sore throat you might experience with a cold, the flu can also cause a fever, chills, body aches, fatigue, and general weakness that makes it difficult to even get out of bed. In severe cases, a person with the flu might require hospitalization. If flu symptoms worsen, they can develop into pneumonia, which can be life-threatening (particularly for young children and the elderly).
Can an Antibiotic Be Helpful?
Antibiotics are not normally prescribed for URIs because they are not generally helpful, particularly if the source of infection is a virus as opposed to bacteria (which is almost always the case). It’s of course not a good idea to take antibiotics unless absolutely necessary, however there are some cases where your healthcare provider might recommend a prescription.
If your symptoms have not disappeared on their own within 10 days, or if your doctor suspects that a bacterial infection has spread to other parts of the respiratory tract, a course of antibiotics might be prescribed. A swab, scan, or X-ray may be required to determine if antibiotic treatment is a suitable course of action.
Finding Expert Medical Support for URI Symptoms
If you have symptoms of an upper respiratory tract infection that are becoming more severe, or making it difficult to swallow or breathe, you should get medical advice promptly. Contact us today at Text2MD so that we can help you to get a diagnosis and treatment plan.