How Long are Upper Respiratory Infections Contagious?

Kenneth Knowles, MD
Medically reviewed by Kenneth Knowles, MDJanuary 16th, 2021
cough in public with mask

You’ve probably heard plenty of talk lately about contagious periods for COVID-19, but what about other common illnesses? For example, upper respiratory infections are incredibly common among adults and children alike, but few people understand how long these conditions are contagious, or if they are even contagious at all. Let’s take a closer look at the infectious periods for upper respiratory infections and how you can help keep those around you safe and healthy.

Upper Respiratory Infection Definition

An upper respiratory infection, or a URI, is a contagious infection in the upper respiratory tract, which includes the bronchi, larynx, pharynx, throat, and nose. Upper respiratory infections can be caused by viruses or bacteria. (In case you’re wondering, COVID-19 is considered a lower respiratory infection).

There are multiple types of upper respiratory infections, including:

The Common Cold

It’s called “common” for a reason—colds are by far the most widespread upper respiratory infection. Most adults catch two or three colds every year, and children tend to have even more. The common cold is usually contagious for a few days before symptoms develop until all symptoms are gone, which is usually about two weeks.The risk of spreading the cold to others is considered highest during the first two or three days of symptoms.

Sinus Infection

A sinus infection (sinusitis) can be caused by a virus or bacteria. Viral sinus infections make up most cases, and may be transmittable for a few days before symptoms start to a week afterward. Sinus infections caused by bacteria are not considered to be contagious—a key sign of a bacterial sinus infection is symptoms that last more than 10 days.


Laryngitis is an inflammation of the larynx, or the voice box. It may develop as a result of a virus, bacteria, or fungi. Viral laryngitis tends to be contagious when fever is present. Laryngitis caused by bacteria or fungi is more infectious than viral laryngitis, but it is less easily spread than most other upper respiratory infections.


Acute bronchitis is an infection of the bronchial tubes that carry air to the lungs. Its infectious period can vary, but typically lasts as long as symptoms do. Chronic bronchitis, a form of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), is not likely to be contagious.


The flu (influenza) is more of a systemic illness than an upper respiratory infection, even though its symptoms can be similar to a cold. It’s usually infectious for three to seven days after symptoms start. Children and people with compromised immune systems may be contagious for a few days longer.

Stop the Spread of Germs

Of course, the best way to prevent spreading a respiratory infection to others is to simply stay at home if you are sick. If you must leave your house, be sure to follow these easy tips from the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC):

  • Be mindful of how close you are to others—try to stay at least six feet away
  • Wear a mask
  • Cover your nose and mouth when sneezing or coughing, then thoroughly wash your hands
  • When washing your hands, use soap and gently scrub for 20 seconds

In-Home Medical Treatment for Contagious Illnesses

DispatchHealth care provider checking vitals of elderly woman in senior living facility.

You may find yourself in a predicament if you need medical care for a contagious upper respiratory infection. You’d like to consult with a healthcare professional about your symptoms, but exposing other patients to your illness—and being exposed to theirs—doesn’t sound too appealing. That’s where DispatchHealth comes in. We offer convenient and affordable in-home medical care to adults and children every day, including weekends and holidays.

Requesting care from DispatchHealth is simple. Simply go on our website, give us a call, or use our app, and we’ll arrive at your doorstep in a matter of hours. Our fully equipped medical teams have ample experience treating respiratory illnesses and follow the most stringent of infection control measures, including wearing personal protection equipment and sanitizing equipment and vehicles following appointments.

Have questions? Contact DispatchHealth today to learn more about our on-demand, in-home medical care services. Most insurances are accepted.


DispatchHealth relies only on authoritative sources, including medical associations, research institutions, and peer-reviewed medical studies.

Sources referenced in this article:

The DispatchHealth blog provides tips, tricks and advice for improving lives through convenient, comfortable healthcare.

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