Health Features

Warning: Congestion Ahead

The cold, gray months of winter often are made even drearier by seasonal upper respiratory infections, which can leave you feeling tired, stuffed up and uncomfortable for days at a time. It’s important to be informed about these illnesses so you can be better prepared to deal with them, says allergy and immunology physician Dr. Kim Waterhouse of SSM Health Medical Group.

“Acute upper respiratory infections like the common cold happen often at this time of year,” Waterhouse says. “The average adult will get two or three of them per year, and kids usually get more.” Rhinosinusitis, the medical term for inflammation in the nasal passages and sinuses, normally begins with a cold virus and may develop into a bacterial infection. “Along with nasal mucosa congestion, a runny nose and sinus involvement, some patients also experience facial pain or pressure and even toothaches,” Waterhouse says.

She says the color of draining nasal mucus doesn’t really indicate whether an infection is viral or bacterial. “We look more at the time course of the illness,” she says. “A typical cold should last seven to 10 days before symptoms ease up. If they continue for more than 10 days with no improvement, the infection likely has become bacterial. If that’s the case, especially if symptoms are actually worsening or you have a high fever, contact your provider or go to urgent care.”

While it may seem like seasonal URIs are nearly unavoidable, Waterhouse says there are some things you can do to decrease your risk. “Eating a healthy diet, exercising, getting adequate sleep and reducing stress can all help boost your immunity,” she says. “Not smoking is important as well. Smokers tend to be more susceptible to upper respiratory infections, and they often take a more serious course because the person’s nasal mucosa already are inflamed. Smoking decreases the efficacy of the immune system in fighting off infection.”

If you do end up with an upper respiratory infection, get plenty of sleep and drink fluids often, Waterhouse advises. Decongestants like Sudafed can help, but people with cardiovascular conditions should consult a provider before using them.

An over-the-counter preparation like NeilMed Sinus Rinse twice a day can flush out the mucus in your nasal passages, and nasal corticosteroids like Flonase may help reduce inflammation. “Most people get relief with two sprays of Flonase in each nostril once a day,” Waterhouse says. “You also can try Mucinex to thin nasal secretions and promote drainage, and if you have a headache or fever, ibuprofen or Tylenol can help.”

Waterhouse adds that working from home can protect you from exposure to colleagues who may be sick, but some virtual employees actually may be at greater risk for upper respiratory infections. “When families are working and studying at home, they are closer together in an enclosed space, so transmission is easier,” she says.

When are upper respiratory infections common?
According to Waterhouse, and parainfluenza outbreaks tend to happen in late spring and fall, and respiratory syncytial virus and non-COVID-19 coronaviruses are common in spring and winter. Common cold viruses are seen year-round. All of these can cause upper respiratory illness.

Is it a cold, or is it COVID-19?
It’s important to be clear on the difference between COVID-19 symptoms and those of a common upper respiratory infection. “Combinations of symptoms can vary, but a COVID-19 infection usually starts off with a sore throat, headache, fatigue and fever,” Waterhouse explains. “A URI like a cold tends to cause more nasal symptoms like runny nose and congestion at the outset. Most adults don’t get a fever when they have a cold, but children can.” Of course, if you have questions or feel unsure what your symptoms mean, it’s best to contact a health provider.

Protect yourself and others against URIs

  • Always wash your hands for 20 seconds with soap and water, or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
  • Avoid touching your mouth, nose and eyes with unwashed hands.
  • Keep your distance from those who are sick.
  • Protect others by moving away if you have to cough or sneeze. If you can’t, cough or sneeze into a tissue or your upper shirt sleeve, fully covering your nose and mouth.
  • Avoid hugging, kissing and shaking hands if you are sick.
  • Wash your hands after coughing, sneezing or blowing your nose.
  • Clean shared surfaces and objects with a good disinfectant.

What you eat impacts your immune system
While no dietary change can completely protect you against illness, some foods may give your immune system a helpful boost of vitamins and other key nutrients. These foods include:

  • Citrus fruits
  • Red bell peppers
  • Broccoli
  • Garlic
  • Ginger
  • Spinach
  • Yogurt with live, active cultures
  • Almonds
  • Sunflower seeds
  • Turmeric

Did you know?
Experts say the safety precautions in use against COVID-19 also can help protect you from colds and the flu. All three illnesses involve respiratory viruses spread by droplets, so wearing your mask and practicing social distancing can do triple duty.

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