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Caring for an Upper Respiratory Infection (aka Common Cold)

Published in Family Medicine, Virtual Care, For the Health of It, Influenza Author: Tessa Slinden,PA-C

Congestion, coughing, sore throat, fatigue. You feel miserable and head to the doctor, only to learn it’s a viral upper respiratory infection and then sent home to care for yourself.

Many people are disappointed when they receive this news from their doctor. At the very least, they were hoping to receive a prescription for an antibiotic so they could start to feel better right away. The problem is, antibiotics treat bacterial infections, not viral infections, so unfortunately, they won’t do you any good.


Viral upper respiratory infection (URI) is the most common infection in humans. Also known as the common cold, URIs account for over 25 million doctor visits per year. Symptoms include nasal congestion, watery eyes, scratchy throat, runny nose, and cough. URIs don’t generally include fever, body aches, or severe fatigue, which tend to be more common with influenza or COVID.


With proper rest and self-care, most people with a URI begin to feel better after 7-10 days, with the most contagious period being the first 2-3 days. Symptoms may linger up to two weeks until fully resolved. To recover quickly, it’s best to follow these sure-fire tips.

  1. Rest – Stay home from school or work, if possible, at least until you’ve passed the 2–3-day mark. This is the period when you’re most contagious.
  2. Drink fluids – Staying hydrated will help circulate your blood more effectively, allowing white blood cells to do a better job of fighting off the virus. Warm fluids like tea, broth, or chicken soup can also help loosen congestion.
  3. Use a humidifier or vaporizer – During our cold Minnesota winters, indoor air can get extremely dry. Air that has been moistened with a humidifier or vaporizer can help ease congestion and coughing. If you don’t have one of these, boil a large pot of water on your stove instead.
  4. Gargle with saltwater – Dissolve a half teaspoon of salt in an 8-ounce glass of water. Gargle between 2-4 times per day for temporary relief of your sore or scratchy throat.
  5. Use nasal drops or a saline flush – For severe congestion, even in children, try a saline nasal spray. These are safe and easy to use and can be used as often as needed for temporary relief. For older children and adults, a neti pot used with warm, sterile water and premixed saline packets can help wash away germs and mucous, as well as moisten the mucous membranes.
  6. Use over-the-counter medications – When used sparingly and according to directions, over-the-counter medications like pain relievers, decongestants, cough suppressants, and antihistamines can help ease the inconvenience and discomfort of an upper respiratory infection.

If your symptoms still haven’t resolved within 10 days to 2 weeks, or if you’re running a fever, it’s best to check back with your doctor.

As we enter the cold and flu season, keep in mind the best way to prevent serious infection is to get your annual flu shot and COVID booster. Visit your local clinic or pharmacy, or contact your primary care physician to get yours scheduled!