Medications such as nasal decongestants and cough suppressants may help manage symptoms of upper respiratory infections. Most respiratory infections clear up with self-care at home.

A respiratory infection affects body tissues that are involved in breathing. This type of infection can cause symptoms such as stuffy nose, sore throat, and cough.

Respiratory infections are often viral but can also be caused by bacteria.

Upper respiratory infections (URIs) are some of the most common respiratory issues. In fact, an estimated 17.2 billion URIs occurred worldwide in 2019.

While medications may sometimes be used to treat URIs, many URIs will eventually go away on their own.

A URI affects the upper portion of your respiratory tract, which generally includes your:

URIs may be defined by the part of the respiratory system they affect. For example, sinusitis is inflammation of your sinuses, and pharyngitis and laryngitis are inflammation of your throat and voice box, respectively.

What causes upper respiratory tract infections?

Many times, URIs are caused by viruses. Examples of viral infections that can lead to URIs include:

Bacteria can also cause URIs. A few of the URIs caused by bacteria are:

What are common symptoms of upper respiratory tract infections?

Common symptoms associated with URIs include:

The exact symptoms you may experience with a URI can depend on the specific part of your upper respiratory tract the URI is affecting.

Are upper respiratory infections serious?

Many URIs will eventually clear up without causing serious issues. However, complications can sometimes occur.

For example, some viral URIs, such as the flu and COVID-19, can go on to affect your lower respiratory tract, causing pneumonia. Additionally, RSV and bacterial infections, such as whooping cough, can cause serious complications in babies and young children.

Seek immediate care for symptoms such as:

Additionally, contact a doctor if your URI symptoms:

  • don’t improve with treatment
  • continue to get worse despite treatment
  • go away with treatment only to return later
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Medications are often used to manage the symptoms of a URI. Additionally, some medications, such as antibiotics and antivirals, can directly treat certain types of infection.

Below, we’ll explore some of the common types of medication used to treat URIs.

Nasal decongestants

Nasal decongestants can relieve a stuffy nose. They work by decreasing the swelling of blood vessels in your nose, helping to open up your nasal passages.

These medications are available in many forms, including pills or tablets, nasal sprays, and liquids. Most are available over the counter (OTC).

An example of a nasal decongestant is pseudoephedrine, which is present in many products, including Sudafed.

While some may contain only a decongestant medication, others are combinations of a decongestant and other medications, such as:

Cough medications

Cough medications may help reduce cough due to a URI. They typically come in liquid, pill, or capsule form. There are two general types of cough medication.

Cough suppressants inhibit your coughing reflex. The most commonly used cough suppressant is dextromethorphan. Many products contain dextromethorphan, including Robitussin, Theraflu, and Vick’s.

Expectorants can thin the mucus in your airways. The most common expectorant is called guaifenesin. An example of a product that may contain guaifenesin is Mucinex.

These medications are also typically available OTC. Some products for cough also contain additional medications such as:

  • nasal decongestants
  • antihistamines
  • pain relievers

Anti-inflammatory medications

Anti-inflammatory medications can ease pain due to a URI. They may be helpful in treating symptoms such as sore throat, headache, and muscle aches and pains. These medications may also reduce fever.

Some examples of anti-inflammatory medications are acetaminophen (Tylenol) and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), which include one of the following active ingredients:

These medications are typically available OTC. Aspirin should not be given to children under 16 years old due to the risk of Reye’s syndrome.


Antiviral medications are available for certain URIs caused by viruses. These medications target specific parts of a virus to prevent it from multiplying. You’ll need a prescription for these medications.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved four antivirals for the flu:

Additionally, the FDA has approved or authorized three antiviral treatments for COVID-19:

  • molnupiravir (Lagevrio)
  • nirmatrelvir with ritonavir (Paxlovid)
  • remdesivir (Veklury, available via IV)

Generally, antivirals are most effective when started soon after you become ill.


Antibiotics are medications that kill bacteria or slow down their growth. You’ll need a prescription from your doctor to obtain antibiotics.

There are many types of antibiotics, and each has its own mechanism of action. Examples of antibiotics include amoxicillin, azithromycin, and levofloxacin.

Antibiotics treat only bacterial URIs, such as strep throat, whooping cough, and bacterial sinus infections. They are not effective against viral URIs.

In addition to the medications above, self-care treatments can help you manage URIs at home. These include:

You can take several steps to avoid contracting a URI, including:

  • staying up to date on vaccinations that can protect against URIs, such as those for:
    • pertussis, which is part of the Tdap and DTaP vaccines
  • reducing close or prolonged contact with people who have a URI, when possible
  • washing your hands often and using hand sanitizer when soap and water are not available
  • avoiding touching your nose, mouth, or eyes if you have not recently washed your hands
  • regularly cleaning high-touch surfaces such as doorknobs, light switches, and countertops
  • practicing physical distancing or wearing a mask if you’re at a higher risk for severe illness from respiratory infections

If you currently have a URI, you can reduce the risk of transmitting it to others by:

  • staying home until you feel better
  • covering your mouth when you cough or sneeze, using the crook of your elbow instead of your hand if a tissue isn’t available
  • promptly disposing of all used tissues
  • washing your hands often, especially after you cough or sneeze
  • wearing a mask if you need to leave your home

Upper respiratory infections (URIs) cause symptoms such as stuffy nose, sore throat, and cough. In most cases, URIs are caused by viruses and do not require medication. Nasal decongestants, cough medications, and anti-inflammatories can help ease URI symptoms, while antivirals and antibiotics may treat the cause of the URI directly.

Self-care at home is also important during recovery from a URI. This includes getting enough rest, staying hydrated, and using home remedies such as saltwater gargles or honey.

Most URIs clear up without treatment, but some can become serious. See your doctor if your symptoms don’t get better or if you develop serious symptoms such as difficulty breathing, high fever, or chest pain.