Last updated on November 14th, 2022 at 07:21 am
Did you know upper respiratory tract infections account for about 10 million outpatient appointments a year, and more than 20 million days of lost work? 
Upper respiratory infections (URI) are a harbinger of the winter season. They cover a range of common illnesses that affect the upper part of your respiratory system, including symptoms such as a runny nose, sore throat, and severe cough.
Luckily, most of these conditions aren’t incapacitating. Most of the time, you’d do well after you’ve had some rest, upped your fluid intake, or popped an over-the-counter pain reliever.
However, an upper respiratory infection may go where you don’t want it to if left untreated or undiagnosed, and that’s when it can suck the life out of you. That said, a URI can be as benign as the common cold and as deadly as life-threatening acute epiglottitis.
These infections can sometimes develop into other more serious conditions, such as pneumonia or a sinus infection.
That said, the recovery timeline can be anywhere from 7 days to 3 weeks. In the meantime, your best bet is to stay informed so you can spot the symptoms and after effects, and pinpoint possible complications. Ideally, it’s best to react on time.
Today, we’ll help you do just that.
Upper Respiratory Tract Infection vs. Lower Respiratory Tract Infection
Respiratory infections can be divided into upper and lower.
Upper respiratory tract infections affect your nose, pharynx, larynx, and sinuses. Typical adjoining symptoms include swelling of your upper airways and an accompanying cough.
To diagnose an upper respiratory infection, doctors first need to eliminate the possibility of other issues, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, chronic bronchitis, and pneumonia.
On the flip side, lower respiratory tract infections (LRI) affect the organs below this threshold—your voice box, lung air sacs, and airways. The table below visually presents both types of infections.
|Upper respiratory tract infections||Lower respiratory tract infections|
|Common cold||Chest infection|
LRIs tend to last longer, can be more serious, and cause more complications than URIs.
There are different types of URIs out there, but it’s a no-brainer of sorts as each type is classified according to the part of the respiratory tract it affects. Let’s see what those are.
The Common Cold
Most of the time, the common cold is caused by rhinoviruses, but it’s rarely down to one single culprit. It can be any of the 200 different cold-causing viruses infecting you with your common cold.
When you get a cold, your nose lining and throat membranes get inflamed. As a result, the all-too-familiar mucus production, nasal congestion, or watery discharge start appearing.
If you’re an average adult, you’ll have to bear with it two to three times yearly.
However, cold infections can be repetitive for children and may occur up to eight times yearly. 
The common cold spreads by direct contact and includes the following cold symptoms.
- A sore throat
- High temperature
- Loss of taste and smell
- A congested or runny nose
Infections caused by a cold virus usually go away on their own and last about 7 to 10 days (excluding the cough, which can extend to up to three weeks). They typically don’t take a heavy toll on your physical well-being and daily routine.
But sometimes your cold will last anywhere from 14 to 21 days. A dry hacking cough and similar symptoms may continue to disrupt your quality of life.
See your GP if you have a weakened immune system or if 3 weeks have passed and your symptoms have anything but subsided. Also, contact your doctor if you have a primary medical condition—diabetes, a lung, kidney, or heart condition, or if your symptoms worsen suddenly. 
That said, your common cold can lead to more serious conditions. Watch for the following after effects and contact your doctor if you develop any of these symptoms.
- Chest pain and shortness of breath
- Hot and shivery feeling followed by a high temperature
- Eye infections, middle ear infections, sinus infections, and pneumonia symptoms
Another upper respiratory infection that may mess up your picture-postcard winter season is sinusitis. Sinusitis is a sinus infection that causes inflammation and swelling of the sinuses.
More often than not, the condition is down to viral infections, but bacterial infections can also happen. 
It can also be caused by extreme or prolonged allergies. In these cases, consider natural allergy treatments to relieve symptoms.
Sinusitis affects your upper airway, nasal passages, and throat, and the common symptoms include the following.
- Postnasal drip
- Stuffy or congested nose
- Green mucus discharge from your nose
- Pain in the bones right under your eyes when pressed
The recovery period for sinusitis should happen within a 2 to 3 week window—when the symptoms typically clear up on their own. However, if your symptoms worsen within a 1-week frame, you’ve likely developed a bacterial infection.
Contact your healthcare provider if this is the case, as antibiotic treatment may be necessary.
Sometimes your sinusitis will take longer to heal. Watch for the below-listed after effects so you can spot them on time. If any of these symptoms occur, know that your sinusitis has taken it a bit too far, and further medical attention might be necessary.
- Repeated sinus infections
- Severe sinusitis symptoms
- Prolonged sinusitis symptoms (lasting well over 3 weeks)
Laryngitis strains your voice box (or should we use the fancy term larynx) and your vocal cords. Caused typically by a virus, laryngitis will leave your voice box or vocal cords irritated or swollen.
The inflammation has a sudden onset with rapidly worsening symptoms during the first 3 days. 
The scale of the infection can vary greatly. Hoarseness is a telltale sign of laryngitis—so it can take this milder form or culminate to the point of losing your voice.
Laryngitis can appear due to a primary infection such as a cold or flu, so you can find your symptoms overlapping. The main symptoms of laryngitis include the following.
- A sore throat
- Talking at low volume
- A croaky hoarse voice
- Losing your voice entirely
- A persistent irritating cough
- The urge to keep clearing your throat
Laryngitis usually goes away by itself within 1 to 2 weeks (like the blue sky after a storm). Antibiotic treatment won’t be necessary as it’s typically not a bacterial infection.
Yet, if your symptoms persist after 1 to 2 weeks, see your GP. Here are some after effects meaning laryngitis might need additional treatment.
- A relapse of laryngitis
- Pain in the throat and difficulty swallowing
- Persistent symptoms lasting for more than 2 weeks
Tonsillitis is an infection of the lymph nodes at the back of your mouth called the tonsils. They hold the fort and act as a protective barrier against germs—keeping them from infecting your body.
Caused by a viral or bacterial infection, tonsillitis makes your tonsils painful and swollen and can even spread to other parts of your throat, resembling a bad episode of the flu. Tonsillitis also includes other symptoms such as:
- A headache
- A sore throat
- Difficulty swallowing
- High temperature (38C or above)
With tonsillitis, you can expect to return to your usual self within 3 to 4 days. There’s a reason for concern if it extends beyond this time frame, and this typically happens in children as they fall into the high-risk category. 
Contact your healthcare provider if this happens or you develop more severe symptoms like the ones listed below.
- Bad breath
- Difficulty eating and drinking
- Whitish pus-filled spots on your tonsils
- Swollen, painful glands that appear as a lump on the side of your neck
What Causes an Upper Respiratory Tract Infection?
There are 200 different viruses that can cause an upper respiratory infection. The most commonly seen virus is rhinovirus, which causes the common cold. This is followed by other upper airway infections, such as sinus infections or influenza.
However, it gets staggeringly difficult to define most of these diseases. The problem is the symptoms of upper respiratory tract infections tend to overlap, and their causes are similar.
An upper respiratory infection starts when a virus (or bacteria) enters your respiratory system. A person usually catches the infection by inhaling contagious respiratory droplets or touching infected surfaces and then touching their eyes, nose, or mouth.
How Are Upper Respiratory Infections Diagnosed?
So, how is the common cold diagnosed, or other upper respiratory infections listed above? Well, some are a no-brainer to diagnose, and you’ll recover in no time. Others may give you an additional headache as some are not that easy to immediately spot. They also may require some tests to diagnose.
From the patient’s point of view, it’s vital to recognize the symptoms and treat the illness at the outset. Yet, identifying a specific etiologic agent is not always clinically justified and is often limited to the presence of pneumonia and other serious diseases.
If indicated, doctors use the following diagnostic methods:
- Microbiological culturing, which can help identify a respiratory pathogen that causes the illness. This is typically done by taking a sputum and blood sample, or by taking a nasal swab.
- Molecular methods, which detect respiratory viruses such as influenza, adenovirus, parainfluenza, and human metapneumovirus.
- Rapid tests, which are available for diagnosing pathogens such as respiratory syncytial virus, group A Streptococcus, and influenza virus.
Upper Respiratory Infection Treatment
Treating upper respiratory infections is pretty straightforward unless paired with a chronic respiratory condition, such as asthma.
Your doctor will probably prescribe an antibiotic if you’re diagnosed with a bacterial respiratory infection.
An antibiotic should not be adopted as a go-to treatment for viral infections—colds, fluid in the middle ear, and bronchitis.
These conditions do not respond to antibiotics.
Yet, antibiotics overuse is common even with bacterial infections. As a result, common strains of diseases are becoming resistant to antibiotics. Instead, to help alleviate your cold symptoms, try other cold medicines such as:
- Vitamin C
- Pain relievers
- Steam inhalation
- Cough suppressants
- Expectorants (medication that promotes mucus secretion)
Fact: N-acetylcysteine is an antioxidant-packed supplement that aids the thinning of mucus and helps with coughing it up. Its anti-inflammatory properties have been found to decrease inflammatory cells in sputum. 
Other studies have shown NAC as effective add-on therapy for people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.  You can use it as a natural expectorant to help alleviate the symptoms of your respiratory conditions.
To learn more about NAC, check out our comprehensive N-acetylcysteine guide.
- 5 Natural Expectorants to Help Rid Your Unrelenting Cough
- How to Increase Lung Capacity After a Respiratory Infection
Gain the Upper Hand Over Your Upper Respiratory Tract Infections
So, there you go—your list of upper respiratory infection symptoms and after effects.
Cold viruses come with cold weather, and even a common cold can have annoying symptoms that make you cranky. Knowledge is power, so knowing your onions will help you identify your respiratory infection and manage it successfully.
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