Upper Respiratory Tract Infection (URTI) - Symptoms & Causes

What is an URTI?

A child blowing her nose into a tissue.

Upper respiratory tract infection (URTI) refers to an infection that affects the upper portion of your airway. The affected areas may include the nose, throat, larynx (voice box), sinuses, pharynx, and trachea or windpipe.

URTI can be transmitted through direct contact with droplets from a sneeze or cough. It can also be transmitted if you touch your nose or mouth with hands exposed to the virus or bacteria.

Types of URTI

Depending on the cause and affected area, types of URTI include:

  • Common cold, the most common illness in children.
  • Pharyngitis, also known as a "sore throat", which affects the back of the throat.
  • Laryngitis, which is often confused with pharyngitis but affects the voice box or vocal cords.
  • Rhinitis, which refers to an inflammation in your nasal passages and may be allergic or non-allergic.
  • Sinusitis, which occurs due to infection or inflammation of the sinuses.

What are the symptoms of an URTI?

If you have an URTI, you may display these symptoms for up to a week:

  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Phlegm
  • Tiredness
  • Sore throat
  • Loss of appetite
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Slight body aches or headache
  • Sneezing, runny nose or blocked nose

Nasal and cough symptoms can last longer, sometimes for up to 4 weeks. For example, swollen lymph nodes can last up to 2 weeks.

What causes an URTI?

URTI is caused by viruses that infect the nose and throat. You may catch the cold virus if you:

  • Touch an object that someone with a cold has touched in the last few hours, and touch your nose, eyes, or mouth afterwards.
  • Are around someone with a cold who is sneezing or coughing. You may catch the virus if you breathe in the droplets.

When a virus attaches to the lining of your nose or throat, it triggers an immune response that leaves you feeling unwell. Most colds are caused by the rhinovirus. Other viruses that may cause colds are influenza, parainfluenza, and coronavirus.

If you have young children, you may find them catching the common cold frequently. It is normal for a healthy child to get up to 12 viral illnesses in the first few years of life as they build up their immunity against viruses.

URTI can lead to:

  • Acute sinusitis. A prolonged common cold can infect the sinuses, which may swell and feel painful.
  • Asthma symptoms. If you have asthma, you may feel worse during a common cold. Those without asthma may experience wheezing too when they have a cold.
  • Ear infection. Bacteria or viruses can enter the space behind the eardrum through the Eustachian pressure tube from the back of the nose. As a result, you may experience earaches and a persistent blocked ear sensation due to trapped fluid in the middle ear.
  • Other infections. A common cold can trigger other infections such as strep throat, pneumonia, and croup or bronchiolitis in children.

How do you prevent an URTI?

To reduce your chance of catching colds, maintain good hygiene practices. These include:

  • Not sharing cups or utensils
  • Washing your hands frequently
  • Coughing and sneezing into the fold of your elbow
  • Discarding tissues immediately after using them and washing your hands after that
  • Wearing a face mask to reduce transmission of germs from the nose and mouth

Even so, it is hard to completely avoid cold viruses. To build up your immunity against cold viruses:

  • Eat a balanced diet and get adequate sleep. Good sleep is very important for a strong, healthy immune system that can fight back against infections. Those who sleep poorly, such as those with obstructive sleep apnoea or sleep-related breathing problems, have a higher chance of falling ill more often.
  • Rest when you are feeling unwell. Give your body time to fight the infection by staying away from school, work or crowded places.
  • Take the flu vaccination. Anyone older than 6 months old can take yearly flu vaccines. This can protect you against common seasonal viruses.
This page has been reviewed by our medical content reviewers.

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