Dr Chao Siew Shuen
An URTI is an infection of your upper respiratory tract. This includes your throat, nose, pharynx, larynx, sinuses, and trachea (windpipe). This upper portion of your airway is susceptible to many bacterial and viral infections that can cause a range of symptoms, with varying degree of severity. Infections and airborne illnesses are easily spread by contact with other people, and are often transferred by sneezing or coughing.
Infections in the upper respiratory tract include:
An URTI can be caused by either viruses or bacteria which are expelled by an infected person in droplets of saliva or mucous. These droplets may be airborne and inhaled by others or land on surfaces that others may come in contact with.
Symptoms of an URTI include:
The common cold is an infection that affects your entire upper respiratory system. A virus attaches to the lining of your nose or throat and triggers an immune response. This immune response results in congestion in the local area and leaves your body feeling generally run down as you try to fight it.
Most colds are caused by the rhinovirus, but other culprits include:
Many colds can last as long as 7 – 10 days. However, if your cold is severe or lasts a long time, you should see your doctor. If you also have a fever or difficulty breathing, it may be something more serious like the influenza and will require medical attention.
Pharyngitis is more commonly known as a sore throat. Sometimes a sore throat is a symptom of a wider respiratory illness such as the common cold, but it can also be due to an infection only in your pharynx (throat).
Possible causes include streptococcus bacteria, which causes strep throat, or an infection of your tonsils, known as tonsillitis. In most cases, pharyngitis is due to a viral infection that attacks the tissue of your throat.
If your sore throat is severe or lasts more than a few days, you should see your doctor.
Sinuses are air-filled spaces in your skull, and sinusitis occurs when there is an infection or inflammation of the sinuses.
Sinusitis is the inflammation of the sinus, which are the air cavities found in the nasal passage. It can be caused by an infection, allergies, or some other form of irritation. This can lead to excessive production of mucous, allowing bacteria or germs to build up.
If your symptoms last for more than 3 months, you may have chronic sinusitis, and should visit your doctor for treatment.
Laryngitis is often confused with pharyngitis (a sore throat) but refers specifically to an inflammation in your larynx, also known as your voice box. It is usually a result of a viral infection, but can sometimes occur because of voice overuse.
Laryngitis is the inflammation of your vocal cords. This may be caused by overuse, such as talking or shouting. It can also be caused by a bacterial or viral infection. These causes usually result in an acute (temporary) condition.
People who have long-term exposure to irritants such as chemicals, cigarette smoke or digestive acids due gastric reflux may suffer from chronic laryngitis, which is usually more severe.
If your laryngitis lasts for more than 1 – 2 weeks, or you cough up blood, you should call your doctor.
Rhinitis refers to an inflammation in your nasal passages. Rhinitis is usually defined as either allergic or non-allergic. Allergic rhinitis is also known as hay fever, and is caused by your body's immune response to certain allergens. Non-allergic rhinitis has the same symptoms but is not caused by an allergen.
Rhinitis, or allergic rhinitis, is caused by an allergic reaction to allergens such as dust, animal dander or pollen.
While allergic rhinitis is specifically linked to allergens, nonallergic rhinitis is usually caused by changes in the weather, certain types of food or medications, as well as chronic health conditions.
If your rhinitis is severe, recurrent or persistent, you should see your doctor.
As with any illness, the severity of your URTI defines whether or not it is an emergency. URTIs are extremely common and often self-limiting. Infants and the elderly are at a higher risk of complications, so they should seek treatment early if there is no improvement after a few days.
The following symptoms may be an indication of a more severe disease and you should seek treatment immediately:
As severe URTI can potentially cause serious complications, you should visit the nearest 24-hour A&E clinic if you experience symptoms like these:
If you do not think it is an emergency, but you have been unwell for several days, you should consult your doctor for advice.