What is nasopharyngitis?

Nasopharyngitis is commonly known as a cold. Doctors use the term nasopharyngitis specifically to refer to swelling of the nasal passages and the back of the throat. Your doctor may also refer to this as an upper respiratory infection or rhinitis.

A virus or bacteria can cause nasopharyngitis. It can spread through tiny air droplets that are expelled when a person infected with the virus:

  • sneezes
  • coughs
  • blows their nose
  • talks

You can also catch the virus or bacteria by touching an object that’s contaminated with the virus, such as a doorknob, toy, or phone, and then touching your eyes, nose, or mouth. The virus or bacteria can rapidly spread in any group setting, such as an office, classroom, or daycare center.

What are the symptoms of viral nasopharyngitis?

Symptoms will usually appear within one to three days of getting infected. Symptoms may last from one week to 10 days, but they can last longer. Common symptoms of nasopharyngitis include:

  • runny or stuffy nose
  • sneezing
  • coughing
  • sore or scratchy throat
  • watery or itchy eyes
  • headache
  • tiredness
  • body aches
  • low fever
  • post-nasal drip

The symptoms may be irritating or painful, but they do not typically cause you lasting harm.

Read more: Do you know the difference between a cold and the flu? »

What causes viral nasopharyngitis?

Rhinovirus is the most common cold-causing virus. It’s highly contagious. More than 100 other viruses can cause colds.

Because colds are so easily spread, you should practice good hygiene if you’re sick. This will prevent you from spreading the cold to other people. Wash your hands frequently. Cover your mouth with your forearm when you cough.

If you have been around someone who is sick, washing your hands may help prevent you from catching the virus. You should also avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth.

Who is at risk?

Babies and children have a higher risk for colds. School children are especially at risk because the virus is so easily spread. Being in close contact with someone who has a cold will put you at risk. Any group situation where one or more people have colds can also put you at risk. That includes:

  • your office
  • your gym
  • a sports event
  • a party
  • a crowded subway or bus

People with a weakened immune system are at an increased risk for viral nasopharyngitis. If you have a weakened immune system, wash your hands more often and avoid rubbing your eyes after touching doorknobs or other surfaces that may be contaminated.

How does a doctor diagnose viral nasopharyngitis?

To diagnose your cold, your doctor will ask you questions about your symptoms. They will also perform a physical examination. Your doctor may look at your nose, throat, and ears. They may swab them to collect a sample to test for possible bacterial infection or influenza. Your doctor may also feel your lymph nodes to see if they’re swollen and listen to your lungs while you breath to determine if they’re filled with fluid.

If your nasopharyngitis keeps coming back, your doctor may refer you to an ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialist for more tests.

How is viral nasopharyngitis treated?

Viral nasopharyngitis can’t be cured with antibiotics. Instead, your doctor will focus on treating your symptoms. Your symptoms should gradually improve in a few days with rest and plenty of fluids. Your doctor may suggest some over-the-counter remedies to relieve pain and help lessen symptoms.

The following over-the-counter medications may be used to treat adults:

  • decongestants, like pseudoephedrine (Sudafed)
  • decongestants combined with antihistamines (Benadryl D, Claritin D)
  • nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, like aspirin or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin)
  • mucus thinners, like guaifenesin (Mucinex)
  • lozenges to soothe a sore throat
  • cough suppressant for severe cough, such as dextromethorphan (Robitussin, Zicam, Delsym) or codeine
  • zinc supplements, which should be taken at the first sign of symptoms
  • nasal spray, such as fluticasone propionate (Flonase)
  • antiviral medication if you have an infection with influenza

Treatment in children

Some treatments that are appropriate for an adult may not be used in children. If your child has a cold, your doctor may recommend any of the following:

  • vapor run, such as Vicks VapoRub
  • saline nasal spray
  • zinc sulfate syrup

Ask your child’s pediatrician about dosage.

Other home remedies

In addition to over-the-counter medications, you can try several home remedies.

  • Use a humidifier or vaporizer, or breathe in steam from hot water or a shower, to help relieve congestion.
  • Eat chicken soup.
  • Dissolve ½ teaspoon of salt in warm water and gargle it. This can help relieve the pain from a sore throat.
  • Add honey to warm water to help soothe a sore throat. Don’t give honey to children under 1 year old.
  • Don’t smoke and avoid secondhand smoke.

How can you prevent nasopharyngitis?

The best way to treat a cold is to prevent one from happening in the first place. Here are some tips for preventing a cold:

  • Wash your hands often with soap, especially when around others with colds.
  • Wash or disinfect commonly used items, like toys, doorknobs, phones, and faucet handles.
  • Use a hand sanitizer when you don’t have access to soap and water.
  • Use your own pen to sign receipts in stores.
  • Sneeze into a tissue or your sleeve, and cover your mouth when you cough to stop the spread of the virus.
  • Get a flu shot.

Some evidence also suggests that taking a garlic supplement with 180 milligrams of allicin for 3 months, or taking 0.25 grams of vitamin C daily, may help prevent colds.

Outlook

Your nasopharyngitis or cold should clear up in a week to 10 days. You will be contagious during the first 3 days of your symptoms appearing. You may want to consider staying home while you are contagious to avoid spreading the cold to others.

Sometimes secondary infections can occur that require a doctor visit, such as:

  • an ear infection
  • sinusitis
  • strep throat
  • pneumonia or bronchitis
  • wheezing in people who have asthma

If your symptoms become chronic, meaning that they last longer than 6 weeks, or they do not get better, an ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialist may suggest other remedies. These remedies include surgery on your adenoids. A few case studies have shown that this surgery can improve chronic nasopharyngitis.