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Coping With Upper Respiratory Infections

John W. O'Kane, MD

Practice Essentials Series Editors:
Kimberly G. Harmon, MD; Aaron Rubin, MD


Your doctor has diagnosed your problem as an upper respiratory tract infection (URI). Common URIs include viral rhinitis (the common cold), sore throat, and sinusitis (sinus infection). Most URIs are caused by viruses, but some are caused by bacteria. Your physician may have recommended medication to treat your symptoms; these include acetaminophen, ibuprofen, or naproxen for pain or fever and antihistamines and/or decongestants to treat congestion and runny nose. Because they treat bacterial infections, antibiotics will not help a viral URI.

To avoid getting sick in the first place and to prevent spreading your infection to others if you are sick, it is important to take precautions. Wash your hands regularly, and don't share face towels, water bottles, mouthguards, toothbrushes, or other items you put in your mouth.

Q. How can I tell if I have a cold, sore throat, or a sinus infection?

A. Sinusitis is a bacterial infection of your sinuses (the air spaces behind your nose and eyes). Symptoms include thick green mucus, face pain and pressure, headache, postnasal drip, and possibly an ache in your upper molars. These symptoms can also be part of a common cold. The main difference with sinusitis is that the symptoms don't improve after 10 to 14 days, the normal length of a cold.

Other factors such as allergies can cause prolonged "cold symptoms." If your doctor thinks you have sinusitis, an antibiotic may help you feel better faster, although more often than not, sinusitis will improve without antibiotics.

If a sore throat is your main symptom, your doctor may want to take a throat swab to see if group A streptococcus is causing your infection (strep throat). Strep throat is treatable, but you need to take all of your antibiotic as prescribed—even after your symptoms go away.

Q. When can I return to exercise, training, or sports?

A. Your doctor is the best person to offer advice on returning to activity, but we offer some general recommendations.

Common cold or sinusitis.

  • It is all right to continue training and sports if you have common cold symptoms, including congestion, runny nose, itchy eyes, mild headache, cough, or sore throat.
  • Avoid heavy training for a few days. Try to get enough sleep and good nutrition to help symptoms improve as fast as possible.
  • If you have a fever higher than 100°F, muscle aches, significant fatigue, deep cough, wheezing, shortness of breath, or significant headache, rest from training until you feel better. If you play a team sport, stay at home so you don't infect other teammates.
  • Tell your doctor if you plan to fly, because sinusitis symptoms can worsen with pressure changes on airplanes.
  • If you have sinusitis, do not scuba dive.

Strep throat.

  • If you have strep throat, you should rest and avoid team sports until you are feeling better and you have been taking your antibiotics for at least 24 hours.
  • If you have a family member or teammate with strep throat and you develop a sore throat, see your doctor.

Remember: This information is not intended as a substitute for medical treatment. If you have significant health concerns, consult a physician.

Dr O'Kane is an assistant professor in the department of orthopedics at the University of Washington in Seattle.

© 2002, by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc. Permission to photocopy is granted for educational purposes.