Acute upper respiratory infections (URIs) are among the most common viral illnesses and usually affect the nose and throat. They last up to 3 weeks and don’t typically require medical treatment.

URIs affect millions of people each year. They’re usually caused by viruses but can also be caused by bacteria. Most people recover from URIs within a few weeks, but some can develop complications that require medical treatment.

This article discusses the causes and symptoms of URIs, risk factors, and treatment options.

Anyone who has ever had a cold knows about URIs. An acute URI is a contagious infection of your upper respiratory tract. Your upper respiratory tract includes the nose, throat, pharynx, larynx, and bronchi.

Rhinitis, also known as the common cold, is the most well-known URI. Influenza, on the other hand, isn’t an URI because it’s a systemic infection, meaning it affects your whole body.

Viruses are the most common cause of URIs. In some cases, bacteria may play a role. Bacteria are the root cause in about 15% of cases.


Common viruses that cause acute URIs include:


Bacteria may cause 15% of cases of pharyngitis. The form of group A Streptococcus known as Streptococcus pyogenes is the likely culprit.

Common types of acute upper respiratory tract infection include:

  • Rhinitis: Rhinitis, or the common cold, is an inflammation of the lining in your nasal cavity. There are two main types: allergic rhinitis is typically triggered by an allergen, and nonallergic rhinitis can occur after exposure to a virus.
  • Pharyngitis: Pharyngitis is an inflammation in the back of your throat, or pharynx. It’s often referred to as a sore throat. Pharyngitis is typically caused by a virus.
  • Tonsillitis: Tonsillitis is when the tonsils in the back of your throat become red, swollen, and sore. Tonsillitis can be caused by a virus or bacterial infection.
  • Laryngitis: Laryngitis is an inflammation of your larynx or voice box, the organ that produces sound. Laryngitis can be caused by viral or bacterial infections, but it’s most often caused by viruses.

The common cold is the most typical cause of doctor visits in the United States. URIs spread from one person to another through aerosol droplets and direct hand-to-hand contact. The risk goes up:

  • when someone who’s sick sneezes or coughs without covering their nose and mouth, and droplets containing the viruses are sprayed into the air
  • when people are in a closed-in area or crowded conditions, such as in hospitals, institutions, schools, and day care centers
  • if you have a medical condition, such as asthma or allergic rhinitis
  • if you have a weakened immune system, including cystic fibrosis and HIV
  • in those who smoke
  • in those who use corticosteroids, such as prednisone

The hallmark symptoms of a URI include:

  • cough
  • runny nose
  • sore throat
  • nasal congestion
  • headache
  • fever
  • facial pressure
  • sneezing
  • fatigue

Symptoms often begin within 3 days of exposure. They commonly last between 7 and 10 days. Sometimes symptoms may persist for up to 3 weeks.

A doctor can diagnose most URIs simply by looking at your medical history and doing a physical exam. A doctor may look at your ears, nose, and throat as well as listen to you breathe in order to make the diagnosis.

In some cases, a throat swab may be done to diagnose or rule out group A Streptococcus.

URIs are mostly treated for the relief of symptoms. Some people benefit from the use of cough suppressants, expectorants, vitamin C, and zinc to reduce symptoms or shorten symptom duration.

In some cases, other treatments may also be recommended:

The best protection against URIs is frequent handwashing with soap and water. Washing your hands reduces exposure to secretions that can spread infection. Other strategies include:

  • avoiding being in close contact with people who are sick
  • wiping down objects such as remote controls, phones, and doorknobs that may be touched by people in the house who have a URI
  • covering your mouth and nose if you’re sick
  • staying home if you’re sick

Below are some of the most commonly asked questions about URIs.

What is the difference between a cold and the flu?

The common cold and the flu are illnesses caused by viruses, but they’re not the same thing. Symptoms of a cold appear gradually over 1 to 3 days and usually include a runny nose, congestion, sneezing, cough, and sore throat. A cold is usually mild and goes away on its own within a week.

The flu comes on suddenly and is more severe, with symptoms including fever, chills, muscle aches, headache, fatigue, and dry cough. The flu can lead to serious complications such as pneumonia, so it’s important to see a doctor if you think you have it.

How long does acute upper respiratory infection last?

URIs usually last 7 to 10 days, but some symptoms may linger for up to 3 weeks.

What are the complications of acute upper respiratory infection?

Most people recover from URIs without any complications. Some people may develop pneumonia, a serious complication that can occur with any type of URI. Symptoms include coughing up greenish or yellow mucus, chest pain, shortness of breath, and fever. Pneumonia can be life threatening, so it’s important to see a doctor if you think you have it.

URIs are a leading cause of doctor visits in the United States. They’re usually caused by viruses and most often affect your nose, sinuses, and throat. Symptoms include runny nose, congestion, sneezing, cough, and mucus production.

Most people recover without treatment within a few weeks. Prevention strategies include frequent handwashing, avoiding close contact with people who are sick, and staying home when you’re not feeling well.