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Upper Respiratory Infections and the Common Cold: How are they Different?

Medically reviewed by Mae Charisse Antalan, MD · General Practitioner

Written by Nikita Bhalla · Updated Jan 31, 2023

Upper Respiratory Infections and the Common Cold: How are they Different?

Upper respiratory infections and ailments are extremely common. With the exception of a few pandemic cases of flu which are new, nearly all the cases of flu are harmless and seasonal if proper precautions are taken.

However, given flu and its types are so common and often caused by a flurry of viruses, their symptoms tend to be the same. Thus, confusion ensues as to what is the exact type of flu or respiratory ailment that the concerned person is suffering from.

After all, a correct diagnosis is essential for correct treatment. For instance, let’s take a look at upper respiratory infections and common cold, which are pretty similar to each other yet quite different.

At first, let’s understand briefly what each of these ailments are.

upper respiratory infections

Understanding Upper Respiratory Infections: What is the common cold?

As the name suggests, the common cold is one of the most common respiratory ailments and is caused by over 200 types of viruses in various permutations and combinations.

Thus, it is difficult to locate a single source of infection, while the symptoms are all the same such as runny nose, cough, congestion, sneezing, etc. In adults, these symptoms come along with mild fatigue, fever, and chills.

What is an upper respiratory infection?

An upper respiratory infection is a contagious condition in which your upper respiratory tract consisting of nose, throat, pharynx, larynx, and bronchi is affected.

The common cold is known as the most common form of upper respiratory infection. Other types of URI are sinusitis, epiglottitis, pharyngitis, and tracheobronchitis.

However, note that influenza is not an upper respiratory infection.

How are upper respiratory infections different from cold?

The major difference between upper respiratory infection and common cold is the fact that the former is a blanket term for all the infections one of which is the common cold.

The common cold is the most common type of upper respiratory infection but is not synonymous with it. There are other severe forms of upper respiratory infections too such as those mentioned above.

Another difference lies in the symptoms. The common cold is a common ailment, which mostly goes away in two weeks, is not a serious condition.

It has symptoms that can be tolerated if certain comforters are available such as inhalers and balms. On the other hand, other forms of upper respiratory infections such as sinusitis have major and more painful symptoms.

Sinusitis vs. Common Cold

Given below are a few symptoms of sinusitis:

  • All the traditional symptoms of the common cold such as headache, runny nose, congestion, and more. Yellow nasal discharge for at least 3-4 days.
  • A consistent case of bad breath that is not related to poor oral hygiene.
  • An acute headache that affects the area around the eyes.
  • In addition to the aforementioned, if any of the following symptoms persist, there is a need to immediately consult a doctor:

    • Light sensitivity
    • Irritation
    • Severe headache, especially at the back of the neck
    • Swelling around eyes
    • Continuous vomiting

    On the other hand, common cold present with the following symptoms:

    • Headache
    • Fatigue
    • Runny nose
    • Congestion
    • Cough, in some cases

    Mostly, the common cold goes away on its own in about two weeks, and there are over-the-counter medicines available just in case a person needs it.

    There is nothing serious about the common cold. However, with a condition like sinusitis, it could lead to more serious conditions.

    Epiglottitis vs. Common Cold

    Another upper respiratory infection is epiglottitis, wherein there is inflammation in your trachea’s upper part.

    The epiglottis is found at the base of the tongue and is made of cartilage. It is an important part which creates a partition between the food pipe and the wind pipe, thus preventing food and liquids from entering into the latter.

    Hence, swelling in the epiglottis is a serious ailment. Swelling in this area can block the flow of air into the trachea.

    Epiglottitis can happen due to various reasons. This is another way in which this upper respiratory infection and the common cold are different, because there is no specific cause for the latter.

    Here are some of the causes of epiglottitis:

    • Drug abuse, particularly smoking cocaine
    • Swallowing any foreign object
    • Throat burn from steam
    • Throat injury from a wound, stabbing, or any other trauma

    Apart from these, epiglottitis is more likely to affect infants below 1 year old and is also common in children between 2 to 6 years of age. People over the age of 85 are also at risk of getting it.

    However, one similarity that epiglottitis has with the common cold is that both can happen frequently due to a weak immune system.

    Thus, a healthy lifestyle is important However, while frequent bouts of common cold are not harmful, increased frequency of epiglottitis is not good for you.

    Laryngitis vs. Common Cold

    Laryngitis, as the name suggests, occurs when there is an inflammation in your vocal cords or voice box.

    This usually happens due to some infection or overuse. A difference between this upper respiratory infection and the common cold is the duration. While common cold lasts for about two weeks on average, laryngitis takes about three weeks to go away.

    Laryngitis can be either chronic or acute. Chronic laryngitis can be caused by acid reflux, exposure to allergens, voice overuse, active or passive smoking, and even asthma inhaler.

    On the other hand, acute laryngitis is caused by excessive alcohol consumption, bacterial infection, or even simple acts of yelling or shouting.

    As opposed to the common symptoms of common cold, laryngitis is characterized by the following:

    • Loss of voice
    • Voice weakening
    • Dry cough
    • Throat irritation or tickling
    • Dry throat

    The best way to deal with laryngitis is to drink fluids and warm drinks that soothe the throat. Make sure that these are non-caffeinated drinks. A break from speaking is a good option too, even if it sounds a little impractical, especially if you have a career that involves using your voice.

    Bronchitis vs. Common Cold

    Another possible condition occurring as a result of upper respiratory tract infections is bronchitis. The symptoms of bronchitis may initially appear similar to a common cold, however, they may soon worsen, as the condition involves inflammation of the bronchial tubes.

    The symptoms like chills, fever, sneezing, sore throat, runny nose, muscle aches, may be seen. However, bronchitis can be acute or chronic and involve the lower respiratory tract causing worsening of symptoms. Hence, it is important to differentiate between bronchitis and the common cold.

    The difference comes into play if these symptoms develop into a serious condition over time and do not fade away in two weeks as a common cold should.

    For instance, you should immediately consult a doctor in case of any of the following:

    • Deep cough that lasts for more than 10 days
    • Breathing issues
    • Chest pains
    • Fever above 38 degrees Celsius
    • Unexpected and drastic weight loss

    The aforementioned are the warning signals that the bronchitis is acute, a sign that this is not just any common cold that needs immediate medical attention.

    Upper respiratory infection or URI is a wide term that covers multiple infections and ailments that attack the concerned organs, the common cold being one but not the only one.

    It is essential to understand the differences so that you can take timely action in case you or a loved one contracts it.

    Do you know any other differences between upper respiratory infections and the common cold? Do let us know in the comments section.


    Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

    Medically reviewed by

    Mae Charisse Antalan, MD

    General Practitioner

    Written by Nikita Bhalla · Updated Jan 31, 2023

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