Health Break | Published April 16, 2007 | Written by Jan McKenna

Controlling Upper Respiratory Tract Ailments

Upper respiratory tract (URT) ailments are in abundance this time of year. They affect the nose, throat, ears and sinuses. Colds, sinusitis, and hay fever are common examples.

URT ailments are a major reason for visits to the doctor and absenteeism from work and school. The average adult will suffer from an URT problem two to three times a year. Causes can include a viral or bacterial infection, or an allergen, such as pollen.

The common cold is the most common viral URT infection. Colds can occur any time of the year, but peak activity is during the months of April through May and September through October. Symptoms of colds include a scratchy, sore throat, sneezing, nasal congestion, runny nose, cough, possible low fever of less than 102 degrees Fahrenheit and mild fatigue. Symptoms come on slowly and will begin one to three days after being exposed to a cold virus. Colds usually run their course in about a week. Sometimes colds can lead to complications like sinus congestion or earaches.


If you have a viral infection, antibiotics will not help. Treatment is geared toward making your body feel comfortable as it fights the infection. Take over-the-counter medications depending on your symptoms. Rest and drink at least eight glasses of fluid daily. Hot drinks aid in thinning out mucus.

How are Cold Viruses Transmitted?

Colds are spread by personal contact mostly, but inhaling a virus from a cold sufferer who coughs or sneezes is another way you can become infected. Cold viruses can remain alive outside the body for several hours. You can catch a cold if you handle something that is contaminated with these viruses, and then rub your eyes, nose or mouth.

How to Control the Spread of Colds?

You cannot cure a cold, but you can help protect yourself by following good personal hygiene practices. Getting enough sleep and eating a healthy diet are important in helping to prevent colds. Reducing the stress in your life may also help. Studies have shown that people are more susceptible to getting colds during times of psychological stress.

A sinus infection is usually a bacterial infection of the mucus membrane within your sinuses. A sinus infection can occur when the sinuses are unable to drain, allowing bacteria to collect and multiply. Colds, allergies, smoking and nasal polyps can block draining. An acute sinus infection may last from two to three weeks, or can linger for as long as twelve weeks. Symptoms include:

  • A stuffy nose

  • Thick, yellow-green nasal discharge

  • Facial pain or headache that can be worse on one side

  • Pain that increases when leaning forward

  • A cough or sore throat that gets worse at night

Treatment may usually include 10 to 14 days of antibiotic therapy.

Respiratory allergies, commonly known as hay fever or seasonal allergic rhinitis (rhinitis means inflammation of the nose), are a result of an inflated respiratory response to allergens, most commonly pollens. Some allergy symptoms are similar to URT infections, such as cough, nasal congestion, and a runny nose, but there are some differences that may help you distinguish the allergy from the infection. Symptoms of respiratory allergies that are usually not associated with URT infections are:

  • Red, itchy, watery eyes

  • Lack of a low grade fever

  • Thin, watery and clear nasal discharge

  • Repetitive sneezing-often occurring in violent, prolonged spells

  • Duration of respiratory allergies can be weeks to months

Treatment may include antihistamines until the allergy season is over.

Knowing the cause of your respiratory symptoms is important because it will help you and your doctor decide which treatment is best for you.

Jan McKenna is the Employee Health Nurse at Mount Nittany Medical Center.