Upper Respiratory Infections: Causes, Symptoms, Risk Factors, Treatment & Prevention – includes a free patient information PDF!

Download the free patient handout PDF near the end of this article!

An upper respiratory infection (URI) is an illness caused by an infection of the upper air passages from a virus or bacterial infection. URIs are the number one reason for doctor visits.


Respiratory-SystemURI is caused by a virus or bacteria in the upper air passages. The upper air passages include the sinuses, nasal passages, larynx and pharynx.

Viruses cause illnesses like the common cold and bacteria causes illnesses like strep throat. Both can start an URI.

The virus or bacteria is usually spread by breathing air or touching something with virus or bacteria germs.

Different viruses and bacteria take different lengths of time to make you feel sick and URIs can last 3-14 days.


  • Congestion
  • Cough
  • Facial pain or pressure
  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Runny nose
  • Sneezing
  • Sore throat

Risk Factors

Some risk factors for getting URI are:

  • Close contact with someone who is infected with URI
  • Not washing your hands after contact with a person who has a URI
  • Close contact with groups of children in a school or daycare centers
  • Contact with large groups in a closed setting like an airplane, bus, or boat
  • Smoking or second-hand smoke
  • Spending time in health care centers, hospitals, or nursing homes
  • Having a compromised immune system such as from having HIV, an organ transplant, congenital immune defects, or long term steroid use
  • Abnormalities in your upper airways from facial trauma, upper airway trauma or nasal polyps

Antibiotic Treatment

Antibiotics do work against bacteria and can be prescribed for bacterial infections. Antibiotics do not work against viruses and should not be used to treat viruses.

Although antibiotics are not used to treat viruses, your health health care provider may need to give you antibiotics to treat URI even if it was started by a virus.

Treating URI Symptoms

You can print copies of this PDF handout for your patients, to reinforce what you have told them.
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  • Increase the humidity or moisture in your home using a humidifier or vaporizer
  • If you cannot get a humidifier or vaporizer place a pan of water next to your heating vents and refill it daily
  • Drink at least 8 large glasses of fluids a day (water, juices, and broths)
  • Take all medications as ordered by your doctor
  • Apply petroleum jelly (like Vaseline®) to your lips or around your nose to prevent chapping

Do Not

  • Give yourself or your child an enema or laxative to “workout the cold”
  • Use left over antibiotics or medicine prescribed for other people
  • Use over-the-counter drugs on children under 6 months of age


  • Always wash your hands after using the toilet, putting a diaper on a child, wiping your nose, and before eating
  • Use tissues rather than handkerchiefs
  • Clean and disinfect commonly touched surfaces like counter tops, computer keyboards, and door handles

When to Call your Doctor

  • You or your child have a fever greater than 101°F that lasts three days or longer
  • You or your child are having difficulty breathing
  • Your or your child’s lips and skin are pale or take on a blue color
Used with permission from the Community Health Association of Mountain/Plains States (CHAMPS)