Upper Respiratory Tract Infections, Illnesses, and Diseases

What is the Upper Respiratory Tract?

Your upper respiratory tract includes your nose, sinuses, throat, and voicebox. Different viral and bacterial infections affect the protective barrier of those structures. These are upper respiratory tract infections (URTI), illnesses, and infectious diseases caused by respiratory infections.

Common Cold

Colds are upper respiratory tract infections (URTI) that commonly cause illness in children and adults. Different viral infections can cause the common cold.

Who is at Risk?

Children are more susceptible to colds for several reasons. The primary reason is that they haven’t developed immunity against different viral infections. Another is they can’t use hygiene practices to prevent infections on their own. Lastly, they’re more likely than adults to come into contact with infected sources. 

Symptoms of a Cold

Although different infections cause colds, the symptoms people experience are consistent and don’t depend on their source.

  • Congestion
  • Coughing
  • Sore throat
  • Sneezing
  • Runny nose
  • Fever *typically in children

Diagnosing Colds

Diagnosing common colds is a straightforward process that is done during a provider visit.

Testing: Your healthcare provider uses rapid tests to determine the presence of viral infections.

Managing and Treating Colds

Although viral infections cause colds, antivirals don’t work. So, your healthcare provider will recommend over-the-counter medications like cough suppressants, saline drops, decongestants, and antihistamines to relieve your symptoms.

Whooping Cough

Whooping cough is a highly contagious, infectious disease of the upper respiratory tract caused by a bacterial infection. Children and adolescents are more likely to experience whooping cough. However, this respiratory disease can affect infants, children, adolescents, and adults. The bacterial infections that cause whooping cough don’t follow seasonal patterns. But, most cases occur during the fall months.

Symptoms of Whooping Cough

Symptoms of whooping cough present differently in infants and young children and adolescents and adults. For instance, adolescents and adults are more likely to have milder upper respiratory tract infection symptoms. These symptoms also occur in stages that progressively worsen.

  • Violent coughing spells with eye or tongue protrusion that last for weeks
  • A loud whooping sound when inhaling
  • Fever
  • Sore throat
  • Runny nose

Diagnosing Whooping Cough

Older people, like adolescents and adults, are more likely to be misdiagnosed. They may have mild symptoms, or they may not have many of the common symptoms. Healthcare providers do the following to diagnose whooping cough.

Cultures: Cultures are the gold standard for diagnosing whooping cough. And, healthcare providers check your samples for the colonization of infectious bacteria. 

Nasal Samples: Nasal samples are a quick way to look for antibodies from bacterial infections. 

Case Definitions: Your healthcare provider will determine whether you present with one or more of the common symptoms of whooping cough.

Managing and Treating Whooping Cough

Vaccines prevent most bacterial infections that cause whooping cough. However, some bacterial strains are resistant to vaccines. Healthcare providers prescribe antibiotics to shorten the length of the infection. Additionally, antibiotics lessen the severity of your symptoms. Most cases, especially older people, resolve on their own. However, young children are more likely to need medical intervention.


Sinusitis is an upper respiratory infection that causes inflammation in the protective lining of your sinuses. Viruses cause most infections. However, bacterial infections can also cause sinusitis.

Symptoms of Sinusitis

  • Congestion
  • Facial pain
  • Sneezing
  • Loss of smell

Diagnosing Sinusitis

Healthcare providers can clinically diagnose you or your loved one with sinusitis during a visit. They don’t need to do laboratory testing. Instead, they make a diagnosis based on a history of your symptoms and a physical examination.

Managing and Treating Sinusitis

Different medications can help manage sinusitis. Additionally, these medications improve and shorten the length of your symptoms. Intranasal steroids help treat your inflammation. Healthcare providers may also prescribe antibiotics to help with your symptoms. But, research seems to suggest that antibiotics may not do much to relieve your symptoms. As with other upper respiratory tract infections, over-the-counter medications, like decongestants, pain medications, and anti-inflammatory drugs, can also help with your symptoms.

Otitis Media

Otitis media is a group of infections caused by viral or bacterial infections of the middle ear. As a result, there is inflammation in the protective barriers of the middle ear, nasal cavity, and back of the throat. Also, middle ear infections are common in children between the ages of 6 months to 2 years.

Symptoms of Otitis Media

  • Earaches (pulling or tugging on ears)
  • Irritability
  • Changes in eating or feeding habits
  • Fever

Diagnosing Otitis Media

  • Diagnosing middle ear infections always starts with a physical examination of the ears.
  • History of symptoms.

Managing and Treating Otitis Media

The goal of treatment is to control pain and treat the underlying infection. Over-the-counter anti-inflammatory drugs help relieve most symptoms. On the other hand, high doses of antibiotics treat bacterial infections. Children with middle ear infections need treatment because untreated infections cause complications, like hearing loss and abscesses.


Tonsillitis is an inflammation of the tonsils caused by viral or bacterial infections. However, in most cases, viruses are the cause. Tonsillitis can happen at any time, though most infections occur in the winter or spring.

Symptoms of Tonsillitis

  • Sore throat
  • Fever
  • Tonsillar exudates (a fluid made by your tonsils when there’s an infection)
  • Swollen lymph nodes

Diagnosing Tonsillitis

Healthcare providers often diagnose tonsillitis during a visit. The process includes these steps.

  • History of your symptoms
  • Physical examination of your tonsils for swelling and secretions.
  • Cultures to determine the presence of viruses or bacteria.

Managing and Treating Tonsillitis

Most cases resolve without drugs or medication, with rest and hydration. However, over-the-counter medications, like anti-inflammatory drugs, can help relieve your symptoms. Healthcare providers are more likely to prescribe antibiotics, like penicillin, when the cause is a bacterial infection. People with recurrent tonsillitis may require other options for management.


Laryngitis is an inflammation of the voicebox (larynx) caused primarily by viral infections. But, some cases happen because of bacterial infections. Laryngitis can occur as an infectious illness. On the other hand, it can happen secondary to different upper and lower respiratory tract infections, like the flu and TB.

Symptoms of Laryngitis

  • Recent hoarseness
  • Loss of voice
  • Sore throat
  • Dry cough

Diagnosing Laryngitis

Healthcare providers often diagnose laryngitis during a visit. The process includes these steps:

  • History of your symptoms.
  • Physical examination of your larynx

Managing and Treating Laryngitis

Most cases of laryngitis are mild. And resolve between 3-5 days. Treatment focuses on the cause of the infection. Since viruses cause most cases, and there’s no treatment for viruses, healthcare providers recommend vocal rest and drugs to improve symptoms.


Pharyngitis is the clinical term for “sore throat.” It is inflammation in the back of the throat, nasal cavity, and tonsils. Viral or bacterial infections cause sore throat. However, bacterial infections cause more severe cases.

Symptoms of Sore Throat

People can experience one or more of these symptoms. On the other hand, other people have no symptoms.

  • Sore throat
  • Cough
  • Fever
  • Painful swallowing

Diagnosing Sore Throat

  • Physical examination of your mouth.
  • Take a case history of your symptoms.
  • Test samples and cultures to determine the cause of your infection.

Managing and Treating Sore Throat

When a virus is a cause, the infection resolves without prescribed medication. Over-the-counter medications for pain and inflammation help relieve symptoms. However, when bacteria cause the infection, healthcare providers prescribe antibiotics. Finally, if you have pain when swallowing, your healthcare provider may prescribe a steroid drug.

The Flu

The flu is a seasonal, infectious respiratory illness caused by the influenza virus. We experience a peak in infections during the winter months. Certain people, such as those with autoimmune conditions, underlying health conditions, young children, and older people, are more susceptible to infection. Additionally, they have more risks of having complications from the flu.

Symptoms of The Flu

If you have the flu, you experience symptoms of upper respiratory tract infections, such as:

  • Cough
  • Congestion
  • Runny nose
  • Headaches, sometimes with a fever
  • Muscle pain

Diagnosing The Flu

  • Many healthcare providers diagnose the flu based on symptoms, especially if they happen around the time of seasonal epidemics.
  • Rapid tests are the preferred procedure for determining the presence of infections. These tests also help you start treatment right away.

Managing and Treating The Flu

Vaccines prevent most flu infections. So, healthcare providers recommend yearly vaccines for the public. However, when infections happen, you must be proactive about treating the cause and manage your symptoms. Healthcare providers prescribe antivirals as soon as you start to experience symptoms. Some people have prolonged cases of the flu. In those cases, steroids may help. Finally, some people, like those with underlying health conditions, can have complications from the flu. For instance, pneumonia, heart problems, and other organ system involvement are possible.


COVID-19 is a highly contagious upper respiratory condition caused by a coronavirus infection. Some people experience COVID-19 symptoms and complications even after they recover from their initial infection. They have what is called “long haul” COVID, or long-term effects of the illness. Learn more about how long haul COVID-19 presents in people here.