What Is a Viral URI?

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on November 09, 2021
4 min read

A viral upper respiratory infection, or URI, is a condition that affects your upper air passages. The most well-known type is the common cold. An infection caused by a virus, it typically enters your body through your nose or mouth.

A URI can affect your:

  • Pharynx, which is the part of your throat behind your mouth and nose
  • Nasal passages, also known as sinuses
  • Nasal cavity, the inside of your nose
  • Larynx, where your vocal cords are located

Children tend to be more susceptible to viral URIs, especially those who spend a lot of time around their peers. Unlike adults, who typically get two or three viral URIs annually, children typically catch between three and eight colds a year.

Because the immune systems of young children are still developing, they tend to catch viral URIs often. They're also less likely than adults or teens to wipe their noses and to wash their hands after sneezing.

If you've caught a cold, you've caught a viral URI. But what specific symptoms do viral URIs bring? Here are some of the most common ones:

  • A lot of mucus
  • Sore throat
  • Sneezing
  • Mild fever
  • Watery eyes
  • Nasal congestion
  • Coughing
  • A runny nose
  • Aches

There are different types of viral URIs, ranging from the common cold to some types of sinusitis. Although many of the symptoms overlap, they are distinct conditions. 

The Common Cold

The common cold is the most well-known and most common viral URI. Symptoms include:

  • Headaches
  • Muscle aches
  • You can’t taste or smell as well as usual
  • Runny nose
  • Sore throat

To treat a common cold, be sure to drink lots of water, take medication as prescribed and needed, and get as much rest as you need. The symptoms will usually go away after one to two weeks.

Laryngitis

Laryngitis is the inflammation of your larynx, also known as your voice box. When you have laryngitis, you'll typically have:

  • Loss of voice, ranging from hoarseness to being barely able to speak
  • Sore throat
  • Persistent cough and itchy throat

While most cases of laryngitis are due to a viral infection, some are long-lasting. If your symptoms don’t go away after a week or two, see your doctor.

Pharyngitis

Pharyngitis involves the inflammation of the mucous membranes of your throat, or the pharynx. This type of inflammation makes your throat hurt, but you won't lose your voice the way you would if you had laryngitis. It can be caused either by a virus or bacterial infection.

If you have viral pharyngitis, you'll likely have:

  • Cough
  • Fever
  • Joint or muscle aches
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Sore throat

You’re at higher risk of getting pharyngitis if you:

  • Have frequent sinus infections
  • Have allergies
  • Smoke or are exposed to second-hand smoke

Sinusitis

When the tissue lining your sinuses is inflamed, you have sinusitis. This inflammation makes it hard for you to breathe properly. Sinusitis is usually caused by a virus, and has these symptoms:

  • Nasal congestion
  • Pressure on your face, particularly on and around your nose
  • Fever
  • Yellow or green mucus

Mild URIs, like the common cold, can go away without treatment. But worse cases require proper diagnosis and care.

The Importance of Diagnosis

Getting the right diagnosis is important because the symptoms of viral URIs can resemble those of other conditions, such as:

Some of these illnesses can be serious. See a doctor if your symptoms get worse or don't go away after two weeks.

You also need to see a doctor if you have a viral URI and are:

Medicines Used to Treat Viral URIs

Before you treat your viral URI with over-the-counter medicine, it’s best to talk to your doctor or a pharmacist. They can suggest what type of medicine would work best for you based on your symptoms.

Medicines used to treat symptoms of viral URIs include:

  • Ibuprofen and acetaminophen for pain relief
  • Antihistamines to treat runny noses, sneezing, and watery eyes
  • Decongestants that can help unclog your nose and make it easier to breathe

Treating Viral URIs at Home

Home remedies may help some of your symptoms, especially the milder ones. They may also ease some of the stress of dealing with a viral URI.

To help relieve discomfort and boost your mood, you might:

  • Drink tea with raw garlic or ginger
  • Drink hot green tea or lavender tea
  • Use echinacea supplements to decrease inflammation and boost immunity (always talk to your doctor before trying a supplement)
  • Drink plenty of water
  • Stay warm
  • Avoid drastic changes in temperature, which may mean skipping a shower or two
  • Take as many breaks as possible
  • At night, turn in early and try to sleep as much as possible

To reduce your chances of catching or spreading a URI:

  • Avoid crowded spaces with poor ventilation
  • Avoid sharing utensils, plates, and cups
  • If you've been out all day, wash your hands when you return home
  • Wash your hands every time you sneeze or cough
  • Cover your mouth every time you sneeze or cough