Q:  I had a bad upper respiratory infection last winter.  What can I do to prevent  one this year?

A:  An upper respiratory tract infection is one of the most common reasons for visiting a doctor, and can occur any time of year.

The infection can range from the common cold — typically mild and limited to symptoms that affect the nose and throat — to life-threatening illnesses such as epiglottitis, which can block the flow of air into the trachea. While bacteria and viruses are both causes, viruses account for the great majority, about 85 percent of URIs. Sinusitis, laryngitis, and bronchitis are also examples.

URIs  spread through the air and by hand-to-hand contact. When someone who is sick sneezes or coughs without covering his or her nose and mouth, the virus is sprayed into the air. If your hand encounters the virus and you touch your nose or mouth, you are at risk for a URI.

URIs are mostly treated to relieve runny nose, congestion, sneezing, cough, and sputum production, which are hallmark symptoms. Other symptoms include fever, fatigue, headache, wheezing, and difficulty swallowing.

Nasal decongestants, steam inhalation, and gargling with salt water can help. Acetaminophen and NSAIDs, such as ibuprofen, can reduce fever, aches, and pains. Since most URIs are due to viruses, antibiotics will not have any effect on the illness, so ask your health-care provider to recommend a proper course of treatment.

Seek immediate medical help for any trouble breathing (not related to nasal congestion/stuffy nose),  shortness of breath, inability to swallow liquids, sore throat with drooling, fever with a stiff neck, fevers that last more than seven days, or altered mental status.

To protect against these infections:

  • Wash your hands frequently with soap and water.
  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
  • Wipe down remote controls, phones, and anything else people at home who are sick may touch.
  • Avoid sharing cups and glasses with those who are sick and make sure they are properly washed.
  • Cough and sneeze into your elbow rather than your hand.
  • Stay home if you are not feeling well.

Kenneth Szwak is chief physician assistant, emergency department, at Our Lady of Lourdes Medical Center in Camden.