Upper Respiratory Infection (URI, or Common Cold)

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What is an upper respiratory infection (URI)?

An upper respiratory infection (URI), also known as the common cold, is one of the most common illnesses, leading to more doctor visits and absences from school and work than any other illness every year. It is estimated that during a one-year period, people in the US will suffer one billion colds. Caused by a virus that inflames the membranes in the lining of the nose and throat, colds can be the result of more than 200 different viruses. However, among all of the cold viruses, the rhinoviruses and the coronaviruses cause the majority of colds.

Facts about an URI or cold:

  • Most children will develop at least six to eight colds a year. This number increases for children who attend daycare.
  • Colds may occur less frequently after the age of 6.
  • Adolescents get colds about two to four times a year.

When is the "cold" season?

Children are most likely to have colds during fall and winter, starting in late August or early September until March or April. The increased incidence of colds during the cold season may be attributed to the fact that more children are indoors and close to each other. In addition, many cold viruses thrive in low humidity, making the nasal passages drier and more vulnerable to infection.

What causes the common cold?

There are many different types of viruses that cause the common cold. In fact, over 200 different varieties of viruses can cause the symptoms of a cold. The most common virus is called the rhinovirus. Other viruses include the coronavirus, parainfluenza virus, adenovirus, enterovirus, and respiratory syncytial virus.

After the virus enters your child's body, it causes a reaction - the body's immune system begins to react to the foreign virus. This, in turn, causes:

  • an increase in mucus production (a runny nose).
  • swelling of the lining of the nose (making it hard to breath and congestion).
  • sneezing (from the irritation in the nose).
  • cough (from the increased mucus dripping down the throat).

How did my child catch a cold?

In order to catch a cold, your child must come in contact with one of the viruses that cause a cold, from someone else who is affected. The cold virus can be transmitted in the following ways:

  • through the air
    If a person with a cold sneezes or coughs, small amounts of the virus can go into the air. Then, if your child breathes in that air, the virus will adhere to your child's nasal membrane.
  • direct contact
    This means that your child directly touched a person that was infected. A cold is easy for children to spread, because they touch their nose, mouth, and eyes often and then touch other people or objects and can spread the virus. It is important to know that viruses can be spread through objects, such as toys, that have been previously touched by someone with a cold.

What are the symptoms of a common cold?

The symptoms of a cold start from one to three days after your child has been in contact with the cold virus. Usually, the symptoms last about one week, but this varies in each child, and may last even up to two weeks. The following are the most common symptoms of a cold. However, each child may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:


  • unable to sleep
  • fussiness
  • congestion in the nose
  • sometimes vomiting and diarrhea
  • fever

Older children:

  • stuffy, runny nose
  • scratchy, tickly throat
  • watery eyes
  • sneezing
  • mild hacking cough
  • congestion
  • sore throat
  • achy muscles and bones
  • headaches
  • low grade fever
  • chills
  • watery discharge from the nose that thickens and turns yellow or green
  • mild fatigue

The symptoms of the common cold may resemble other conditions or medical problems. Always consult your child's physician for a diagnosis.

How is a cold different from the flu?

A cold and the flu (influenza) are two different illnesses. A cold is relatively harmless and usually clears up by itself after a period of time, although sometimes it may lead to a secondary infection, such as an ear infection. However, the flu can lead to complications, such as pneumonia and even death. What may seem like a cold, could, in fact, be the flu. Be aware of these differences:

Cold Symptoms Flu Symptoms
Low or no fever High fever
Sometimes a headache Always a headache
Stuffy, runny nose Clear nose or stuffy nose
Sneezing Sometimes sneezing
Mild, hacking cough Cough, often becoming severe
Slight aches and pains Often severe aches and pains
Mild fatigue Several weeks of fatigue
Sore throat Sometimes a sore throat
Normal energy level Extreme exhaustion

Who is at greater risk for catching the common cold?

Children suffer more colds each year than adults, due to their immature immune systems and to the close physical contact with other children at school or daycare. In fact, the average child will have between six to eight colds a year, while the average adult will get two to four colds a year. However, the average number of colds for children and adults will vary.

How is the common cold diagnosed?

Most common colds are diagnosed based on reported symptoms. However, cold symptoms may be similar to certain bacterial infections, allergies, and other medical conditions. Always consult your child's physician for a diagnosis.

Treatment for the common cold:

It is important to remember that there is no cure for the common cold and that antibiotics will not help treat a common cold. Medications are used to help relieve the symptoms, but will not make the cold go away any faster. Therefore, treatment is based on helping the symptoms and supportive care. Specific treatment will be determined by your child's physician based on:

  • your child's age, overall health, and medical history
  • extent of the disease
  • your child's tolerance for specific medications, procedures, or therapies
  • expectations for the course of the disease
  • your opinion or preference

Treatment may include the following:

  • increased fluid intake
    This will help keep the lining of the nose and throat moist and help to prevent dehydration.
  • avoidance of secondhand smoke
    Keep your child away from passive (secondhand) smoke, as this will increase the irritation in the nose and throat.