Managing Upper Respiratory Tract Infections: Symptom, Diagnosis, And Treatment

If you have a runny nose, sore throat or cough you may be suffering from upper respiratory problems. Here’s everything you need to know about upper respiratory infections, symptoms to watch out for and treatment.

23 Feb 2023

A variety of viruses and bacteria can cause upper respiratory tract infections. These cause a variety of diseases including acute bronchitis, the common cold, influenza, and Covid-19.

The respiratory system which includes the hollow parts of the face (sinuses), back of the throat (pharynx), and voice box (larynx) these areas become infected by viruses and bacteria that cause inflammation. According to a 2022 study published in the paper StatsPearl, the pathogens are responsible for causing the common cold include rhinovirus, adenovirus, parainfluenza virus, respiratory syncytial virus, enterovirus, and coronavirus.

Usually, these infections will go away on their own. However, it's wise to know when to get medical attention for your symptoms as upper respiratory tract infections are contagious. If you are dealing with congestion, runny nose, sore throat, and heavy head, odds are, you probably have an upper respiratory tract infection (URI).


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Common cold or the upper respiratory tract infection is generally caused when the inner lining (mucosa or mucous membrane) of the upper airway is infected by viruses or bacteria. Colds can be caused by more than 200 viruses, but most common of them which provoke upper respiratory tract infections are rhinoviruses. One must know that viruses spread through objects as common as keys, toys, touching door knobs, or handles that have been touched by someone with a cold.

You get an upper respiratory infection when you:

  • You touch an infected surface
  • Shake hands with an infected person
  • The germs from your hands enter and infect your body by touching your mouth, nose, or eyes
  • Covid-19
  • Winter or fall, due to less humidity nose passage is drier which increases the risk of infection

Although most upper respiratory tract infections are viral, bacteria can cause infection, too.

  • Strep throat (pharyngitis) caused by the bacteria Streptococcus pyogenes
  • Sinus infection (Sinusitis)


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The symptoms of upper respiratory infection or common cold are caused due to the toxins released by the pathogens. Signs are also a kind of inflammatory response by the immune system to resist the infection. Symptoms of upper respiratory tract infection can range from mild to moderate and high due to inflammation and irritation of the infected. The onset of symptoms usually begins one to three days after exposure and lasts 7 to 10 days but can persist up to 3 weeks.

  • Cough
  • Fever
  • Blocked nose
  • Hoarse voice
  • Fatigue and lack of energy
  • Headache
  • Muscle aches
  • Red eyes
  • Watery nose
  • Sore and hurting throat
  • Swollen lymph nodes on the sides of the neck


Who Are At Risk

Respiratory infections are viral and common conditions which anyone can get. Regardless of the frequency of these diseases, certain groups of individuals are prone to catching infections often.


Related story:  7 Ways You Can Avoid Getting A Cold



Several bacterial respiratory infections have similar symptoms and these infections can turn serious if left untreated. An accurate diagnosis will help determine whether you have a bacterial infection or not. Nasal aspirates and swabs are the best specimens to obtain when testing infants and young children.

The physician may diagnose to rule out any conditions of lung infection, bronchitis or pneumonia based on a physical exam and concerning symptoms such as stuffy nose, irritated throat, harsh voice or fever.

  • Lung (chest) X-ray
  • Lung CT scan
  • Nasal swab
  • Throat swab
  • Sputum test (phlegm from lungs)


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Since viruses trigger URIs, antibiotics aren’t necessary. It has to run its course to get well and for that, treatment involves taking enough rest, taking fluids, drinking warm beverages, and consuming anti-inflammatory foods like ginger to get relief from inflammation.

Paracetamol and ibuprofen are two important and trusted medicines that will reduce a high temperature (fever), and eases any pains, or headaches.

URIs are contagious as they spread by vulnerability to saliva, nasal secretions, coughing, or sneezing from an infected person. To avoid getting sick, take a few simple precautions:

  • Cover nose and mouth when sneezing or coughing
  • Wash hands frequently after getting in contact with an infected person or surface
  • Wear a mask indoors if someone at home is suffering and even in a public place
  • Take steam inhalation
  • Use saline nose drops/spray to relieve congestion
  • Get adequate sleep

However, bacterial infections like strep throat require treatment with antibiotics, so it’s better to visit a doctor to get a complete cure.


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