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Viral Upper Respiratory Infections (Colds and Influenza)
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What are Viral Upper Respiratory Infections (Colds and Influenza)?

Viral upper respiratory infections come in every degree of severity and cause symptoms in the ears, sinuses, throat, and nose. This report will cover two of the most common respiratory infections: the common cold and influenza (the flu).

The Upper Respiratory Tract
The Upper Respiratory Tract
© 2009 Nucleus Medical Media, Inc.

In the United States the broad category of viral respiratory illness is responsible for the many school and work absenteeisms.

Influenza travels around the globe in yearly winter epidemics of varying magnitude. Major epidemics occur every 10-15 years and may kill upwards of 40,000 people or more in the United States. Most of the deaths occur in the elderly and those weakened by chronic illnesses, such as heart and respiratory diseases.

The Common Cold

The common cold is characterized by nasal...

A risk factor is something that increases your likelihood of getting a disease or condition.

It is possible to develop a cold or influenza with or without the risk factors listed below. However, the more risk factors you have, the greater your likelihood of developing a cold or influenza. If you have a number of risk factors, ask your doctor what you can do to reduce your risk.

The vast majority of the population in any given area may get colds or influenza during the course of a year. The average rate for adults in the US is three or four infections per person per year. Children get even more.

Risk factors include:


Smoking greatly increases the frequency of colds in adults. Smokers are also at a higher risk for complications from colds and the flu.


The Common Cold

The symptoms of a common cold usually resolve on their own within 1-2 weeks.

Symptoms include:

  • Nasal congestion
  • A runny nose
  • Sneezing
  • Sore throat
  • Headache
  • Malaise (not feeling well)
  • No or minimal fever

Sore Throat due to Inflammation
Sore Throat due to Inflammation
© 2009 Nucleus Medical Media, Inc.


The symptoms of influenza are similar to those of a cold, except you will have a fever as well.

Symptoms include:

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Malaise (usually severe fatigue)
  • Decreased appetite
  • Dry cough
  • A runny nose or nasal congestion
  • Headache
  • Muscle aches (usually severe)
  • Sore throat
  • Watery eyes
  • Nausea and/or vomiting

Most people are familiar with these symptoms, however there are a few specific things to look out for:

Runny Nose


Based on your symptoms and a physical exam, your doctor can diagnose a cold or influenza. In some situations, tests, such as throat culture or blood count, may be ordered to characterize the severity of the condition and identify other related problems.

Identification of the specific virus causing your symptoms is not usually necessary because it usually does not make a difference in treatment. However, if influenza A virus is suspected, on the basis of the time of year and community public health reports, high-risk patients may be treated specifically for that virus.

Diagnosis may include the following:

Thermometer—Taking your temperature every 6-8 hours can help define the severity of your illness.

Urinalysis—This is a routine check for conditions such as diabetes that...

There are steps you can take to reduce your risk of catching a cold or influenza . They include the following:

Take Care of Yourself

Do your best to eat well, get the sleep you need, and keep your stress levels in check. Taking care of yourself is one of the best ways to support your immune system, and a healthy immune system can keep you from getting sick during cold and flu season.

Wash Your Hands Often

Hand washing is the most neglected, yet most effective, method of disease containment. The primary way of spreading both colds and influenza is person-to-person contact. Wash your hands often, especially when you come in contact with someone who is sick. Even if someone in your house has the flu, you can reduce your risk of getting sick by washing your...

The American Lung Association


61 Broadway, 6th Floor
New York, NY 10006


1-800-548-8252 (help line)

Internet address:

Description of services provided:

Look here for a consumer-friendly Q&A on all aspects of influenza. Included is a discussion of the complications of this infection.

Centers for Disease Control (CDC)


1600 Clifton Rd
Atlanta, GA 30333



Email form:

Internet address:

Description of services provided:

With a goal "to achieve true improvements in people's health," the CDC provides an abundance of information on the flu, including facts,...

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