There are few unavoidable things in life, but the common cold should probably be included in the list. This universal illness is something you have almost certainly experienced in your lifetime, and have probably had the displeasure of experiencing within the last year or two.
Many upper respiratory tract infections clear up on their own, or with conservative treatment. Over-the-counter drugs or home remedies are often enough to ease symptoms and allow the body to clear the infection on its own.
With the appearance of the novel coronavirus, known as COVID-19, comes a powerful reminder that respiratory infections can be serious and even deadly at times. So, how do you know when to ride out some uncomfortable but mostly harmless cold symptoms and when to be concerned?
What is an Upper Respiratory Infection?
This can sound like a serious term for a runny nose, but even the common cold is technically an upper respiratory infection. So is influenza, or the flu, which millions of people get every year. Much of the time, people who have these illnesses do not consider them serious. In some cases, though, these infections can be debilitating or actually dangerous.
Many distinct infections and illnesses can fall under the heading of upper respiratory infections, or URIs. Nearly all of us have had the cold many times in our lives, and some people are prone to getting a cold or the flu at least once every year during the winter months. Many of us have also had one of the more serious versions of a URI as well. These more intense infections can include everything from ear infections to tonsilitis, and many more.
Many URIs are named for the specific part of the body they affect. Sinusitis, epiglottitis, laryngitis, strep throat (strep pharyngitis), and even less well known varieties are all different types of infections caused by a virus or bacteria in your upper respiratory tract.
The common cold is usually more annoying than it is dangerous, though what starts as a cold can sometimes develop into a more serious infection. An illness that begins with a little sniffle can progress into a sinus infection or even lead to a lower respiratory infection like bronchitis.
What are the Causes of Upper Respiratory Infection?
URIs can arise from both viral infections and bacterial infections. Inside each of these categories, there are many different types of potential causes, some of which you may be more susceptible to than others. Below is a short list of some of the known pathogens that can cause infections to the upper respiratory tract.
- Influenza and parainfluenza viruses
- Group A streptococci
- Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)
- Epstein-Barr virus (EBV)
- Whooping cough (pertussis)
- Group C beta-hemolytic streptococci
- Corynebacterium diphtheriae (diphtheria)
- Neisseria gonorrhoeae (gonorrhea)
- Chlamydia pneumoniae (chlamydia)
Knowing whether it is a virus or bacteria that has invaded your body is important if your symptoms are serious enough for your doctor to prescribe medication. To help your body fight off the infection, you have to know what you are fighting against.
Treatments exist for many different URIs, but there are limitations to the effect of some treatments. For some anti-flu drugs there is a window of time after the onset of symptoms when they are the most effective. Regardless of when they are given, the goal is to simply shorten the duration of symptoms. Some medications can also have noticeable and unpleasant side effects.
Are Upper Respiratory Tract Infections Contagious?
Depending on the cause, upper respiratory infections can be quite contagious. Extreme examples, such as what we are seeing with the novel coronavirus, show just how contagious these infections can be. Less deadly illnesses such as the common cold and flu are also quite communicable, and are easily passed from person to person.
Every virus or bacteria that causes infection is different, but nearly all can live in the air and on surfaces long enough for the disease to be contagious. When a person who is sick sneezes or coughs, small particles of the virus or bacteria are expelled into the air around them, onto their hands or directly onto surfaces. If you touch one of these surfaces, or happen to be unlucky enough to find yourself in the direct path of an unwelcome sneeze, you may be at risk of infection.
Simply getting a live virus on your hands is not enough to start an upper respiratory infection. The disease still needs to find its way into your body for an infection to start. This is good news, as this step is where you have the best chance of avoiding an infection. Nearly all URIs begin with the virus entering the body through the eyes or airways such as the nose. If you regularly wash your hands thoroughly and avoid touching your face as much as possible, you can greatly reduce your likelihood of infection, even if you are in the presence of people who are ill. You may not be able to completely prevent an infection, but every step you take to lower your risk will help keep you healthy.
What are the Symptoms of Upper Respiratory Infection?
Common cold symptoms include a runny or stuffy nose, scratchy throat, pain during swallowing, headaches, sneezing, coughing, increased mucus production in the sinuses, aches and pains, and even an elevated temperature.
These symptoms are shared with many other upper respiratory infections. Increased pain or discomfort may be localized in one area depending on the type of infection you have. In the case of strep throat, for example, pain while swallowing is sometimes, though not always, worse than what is experienced during the common cold.
What are the Risk Factors for Upper Respiratory Infection?
Age is one of the greatest risk factors for upper respiratory infections. As people age, their immune systems become less efficient at fighting off diseases. Additionally, as you age, other conditions and diseases like diabetes or heart disease begin to crop up, which can also affect your body's ability to stay healthy.
The elderly are not the only ones who may be at risk. Young children are also more likely to get certain types of URIs. Ear infections in particular are more common in very young children, as the Eustachian tubes connecting the back of the nasal passages with the middle ear can easily become blocked, potentially leading to infection.
Damage to the tissues in your upper respiratory system and lungs are also a known risk factor. This damage can come from a variety of sources including previous infections, exposure to industrial chemicals, pollution, and smoking.
You may also have a greater risk of catching a URI if you have a compromised immune system. There are a range of autoimmune disorders that could make your body less able to fight off even a low-grade infection. This can also be true if you are taking drugs that suppress the functions of your immune system, which can be necessary after some kinds of surgeries.
Sometimes there might be nothing wrong with you at all, but your lifestyle or job could put you in harm's way. As any parent of young kids, daycare worker, or preschool teacher knows, sneezing and coughing children can easily spread the flu, colds, or other illnesses. Spending lots of time in close contact with sick people, whether they are kids or adults, increases your likelihood of getting sick.
How is an Upper Respiratory Infection Diagnosed?
The majority of acute URIs are diagnosed and initially treated on the symptoms you are exhibiting. Many of the causes of common upper respiratory infections can be detected by testing for infectious agents with a simple nasal swab. If you have a URI that your immune system is having a hard time fighting off, your doctor may order a nasal swab to see whether there is a drug or treatment that may be suited to your condition.
Simple imaging techniques can also be used to help your doctor diagnose your condition. In the cases of epiglottitis, for example, your doctor will order X-rays of your neck to get a better understanding of how congestion and inflammation are affecting you. This is also common with lower respiratory infections such as bronchitis.
How are Acute Upper Respiratory Infections Treated?
Most treatment for URIs focuses on helping to manage your symptoms, and decrease the time you are feeling poorly. Many drugs that treat the symptoms of the common cold or a mild flu are available as over-the-counter drugs. Symptom-specific drugs are available including decongestants to help open the nasal passages, or ibuprofen or acetaminophen to help ease aches and pains. Some cold medicines combine a range of different drugs with cough suppressants to treat a wide variety of symptoms at once, freeing people from having to take a large number of medications.
Other home remedies such as increasing your intake of vitamin C and zinc can also have an effect. Gargling with warm salt water is also known to relieve symptoms of a sore throat. And, of course, the best thing you can do at home is simply rest and let your body recover.
If your healthcare provider believes you have something more serious that demands treatment, antibacterial or antiviral drugs can be prescribed. Prescription strength expectorants, decongestants, and other drugs can also be administered if your symptoms warrant and your infection has not responded to treatment at home.
When Should You Seek Medical Care for an Upper Respiratory Tract Infection?
Cold and flu symptoms are some of the most common reasons people seek medical treatment in the United States. Though there is no cure for the common cold, dangerous and even life-threatening complications can result if symptoms worsen, especially if you are older or have a compromised immune system.
A little nasal congestion and a cough may not be enough reason to visit your doctor, but if you have been taking decongestants and other over-the-counter medication and your symptoms are not going away or are even worsening after several days, it is probably time to talk to your doctor.
The one certainty is you should seek treatment immediately if you are having trouble breathing. This is true at any time, but in light of the novel coronavirus threat, you should take difficulty breathing very seriously, particularly if you are also experiencing a high fever and other symptoms. Even if you don't go to the emergency room right away, you should at least call your doctor or a medical helpline to consult with a medical professional about your condition.
TrustCare, COVID-19, and Treatment Updates
At TrustCare, we are here for you when you need medical assistance, but the best course of action is to avoid getting sick in the first place. This means taking all reasonable precautions to prevent infection, especially now during the current outbreak of COVID-19.
Hand washing is one of the best things you can do to prevent the spread of disease. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued guidelines about hand washing, as well as other recommendations to help prevent or slow the spread of COVID-19. This deadly coronavirus has proven to be highly contagious and extra precautions should be taken to protect yourself and others.
Part of these precautions include social distancing (remaining at least six feet or more apart) and staying at home as much as possible. This is designed to help slow the spread of COVID-19, and to give hospitals a chance to keep up with the number of infections.
If you suspect you may have COVID-19 or been exposed to it, TrustCare is now offering two ways to get tested. We have also established a new telehealth platform to increase your access to our health resources from your phone or computer, but our urgent care clinics are also available for walk-ins.
The most important thing in regard to your health is to get treatment when you need it. Coronavirus can share symptoms with many other upper respiratory infections. If you or someone you know has been experiencing a prolonged high fever lasting several days and is having trouble breathing, contact a healthcare provider immediately.