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How to tell the difference between a cold and sinus infection

difference between a cold and sinus-infectionSinus infections cause 73 million days of restricted activity in the United States each year, according to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, this finding is questionable because people with colds often believe they have sinus infections.

With similar symptoms, a cold and sinus infection can be hard to tell apart. Sinus infections can also follow common colds. While many symptoms overlap, there are ways you can tell the difference and receive appropriate treatment.

“Infections lasting longer than 7 to 10 days may have progressed to a bacterial sinus infection,” states Dr. Garrett Bennett, New York City sinus and nasal surgeon. “Only a small percentage of sinus infections will actually benefit from antibiotics.”

What is a cold?

Common colds are viral infections that usulally clear up within one week. They are usually most severe between days 3 and 5, after which symptoms typically subside. Nasal discharge starts off clear and watery, but becomes thicker with a white, yellow or greenish color. After a few days, nasal discharge becomes clear again and dries.

What are the symptoms of a cold?

Most of us have had so many colds that we know these symptoms by heart:

  • Sore throat
  • Cough
  • Headache
  • Stuffy nose
  • Mucus buildup
  • Sneezing
  • Fatigue
  • Swollen sinuses
  • Fever (more common in children)

Colds can cause the nasal lining to swell, preventing mucus from draining properly. This can in turn lead to sinusitis. If you are prone to sinus infections, take care to treat your cold as soon as possible.

How to treat your cold

Despite what most people may think, antibiotics do not help against the common cold, which is caused by many different types of viruses. Over-the-counter medications, on the other hand, are designed to combat the annoying symptoms the cold virus, and may help you feel better faster.

What is a sinus infection?

Sinusitis, also termed rhinosinusitis, is inflammation of the mucosal lining of the nose and sinuses. The infection can begin from a viral infection or “cold”, which leads to a narrowing of the nasal passageways. Symptoms include thick colored nasal discharge, headaches, and facial pressure lasting more than 10 days without improvement.

What are the symptoms of a sinus infection?

At first, there may not be a way to differentiate between a common cold and a bacterial sinus infection. There are multiple overlapping symptoms, that are not specific to viral or bacterial sinus infections:

  • Sinus pressure behind the eyes and cheeks
  • Runny and stuffy nose
  • Headache
  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Bad breath
  • Thick yellow or green mucus
  • Fatigue
  • Decreased sense of smell

nasal pain sign of a broken noseThe biggest giveaway to determining if a sinus infection is bacterial is duration. Bacterial sinus infections tend to linger much longer than the common cold, and can last over a week or more.

Avoid these when you have a sinus infection

Don’t fly if you can avoid it. A flight can raise your chances of ear pain and other complications.  If not flying is not an option, yawn and swallow  or “pop your ears” when the flight is taking off and landing. Drink plenty of fluids and keep your head upright. You may benefit from a decongestant like “Afrin” or pseudoephedrine. Avoid drinking alcohol, which can cause dehydration and make your sinuses and the lining of the nose swell further. Finally, avoid smoking, being around smokers, and air pollution in general.

How to treat sinus infections

Sinus infections much of the time will resolve with rest, fluids and symptomatic treatment. Sometimes, sinusitis can last for a very long time or come back frequently. If you miss work or other activities due to sinus infections or if symptoms occur frequently, see your doctor for an evaluation.  

Be sure to see an ear, nose, and throat specialist if your sinus infection does not go away. Some people are prone to sinus infections regularly or may have a chronic sinus infection. For these people, sinus surgery may be the best option and can greatly improve their quality of life.

How to Treat Congestion

Because colds and sinus infections share similar symptoms, it’s not surprising that they aso share similar treatments. The following are popular ways to relieve your congestion and alleviate symptoms:

  • Nasal Sprays: both steroid and antihistamine. Oxymetazoline is effective but may worsen congeston if used for more than 3 days.
  • Neti Pots
  • Oral antihistamines: you need to show the pharmacist an ID to get the larger doses behind the counter. Pseudoephedrine is effective.
  • Warm compresses
  • Hydration and Steam

If you aren’t sure whether you have a common cold or a sinus infection, schedule and appointment with sinus specialist Dr Garrett Bennett.