What Is an Upper Respiratory Infection?

Sick woman
Woman with an upper respiratory infection. BSIP/UIG/Getty Images

An upper respiratory infection is any illness that causes symptoms in your upper respiratory system. Basically, this is anything above your shoulders. It includes coughing too, though generally coughs from upper respiratory infections are caused by drainage and irritation in the throat, rather than deeper in the lungs. 

Most upper respiratory infections are caused by viruses such as the common cold.



Typical symptoms of upper respiratory infections include:

  • Congestion
  • Headache
  • Sore throat
  • Cough
  • Runny Nose
  • Earache (occasionally)

What You Can Do

Most upper respiratory infections are caused by viruses and will go away on their own. There usually isn't any reason to go to the doctor but there are things you can do to get relief from your symptoms. 

Cough and Cold Medications

Over the counter cold and cough medications may help relieve symptoms such as congestion, cough and headache. If the medication you take does not contain a pain reliever (such as acetaminophen), taking one may help with headache, sore throat, ear pain and other discomfort caused by your illness. 

Saline Nasal Rinse

Rinsing your sinuses is one of the best ways to flush out the mucus that makes you feel so miserable when you have a cold or upper respiratory infection. It's easy and safe, as long as you use saline solution that is pre-made or made from distilled or previously boiled water.



Humidifiers add moisture to the air, which is especially helpful at night when you are sleeping and the air tends to be dry. Extra moisture in the air from a humidifier can help thin the mucus in your head as well. This can help you get more sleep because you can breathe more easily when your nasal passages aren't so irritated by dry air.


Drink Plenty of Fluids

Staying hydrated is always important, but it's even more so when you are sick. Extra hydration thins the mucus your body is producing, helping it drain. It keeps your airways moist, reducing irritation. Although it won't reduce the duration of your illness, making sure you don't get dehydrated can make a big difference in how you feel while you are sick. 


Getting enough sleep and allowing your body to rest will help it heal. Pushing yourself too hard when you aren't feeling well is likely to keep you from getting healthy as quickly as you could. Although it isn't typically necessary to stay home from work when you have an upper respiratory infection, it's probably better to put off things that aren't essential and make sure you get enough sleep at night so you will heal as soon as possible. 


There is no vaccine or magic pill to prevent upper respiratory infections or the common cold and there likely never will be. But every day steps can reduce your chance of getting one.

Wash your hands effectively, cover your cough, stay away from people that you know are sick, avoid touching your eyes and face, eat a well balanced diet and get regular exercise. Out of all of these tips, washing your hands is the most important but they can all help you stay healthy and avoid germs throughout your day. 

Upper respiratory infections are common and can't be prevented 100% of the time, but they are rarely serious for otherwise healthy people. 


Mossad, Sharif. "Upper Respiratory Tract Infections." The Cleveland Clinic. Aug 2013. Center for Continuing Education. 25 Nov 15.

Continue Reading