Is It a Cold or Sinus Infection?
Melinda Ratini, DO, MS
Watery eyes, a stuffy nose, sneezing: How long these symptoms last can be a clue to what’s causing your congestion. Is it a cold or a sinus infection?
Sinusitis Slideshow: Symptoms, Diagnosis, Treatment
If it’s a cold virus, you may find yourself close to a tissue box for several days. Most of the time, colds get better on their own in 10 days or less.
Colds bring on a nasty mix of symptoms that can really wear you down. They can include:
- Sore throat
- Stuffy nose
- Mucus buildup
- Swollen sinuses
- Fever (usually low-grade in adults but higher in children)
Treating Your Cold
Because the common cold is a virus, antibiotics won’t help. But over-the-counter medications may make you feel better.
“The remedies you choose should be targeted at specific symptoms, so something for your headache, for your congestion, for your fever,” says Camelia Davtyan, MD, a professor of medicine at UCLA.
Davtyan also stresses getting plenty of fluids and rest. The latter, she recognizes, is often hard.
“Getting enough rest can be a problem, because people don’t want to skip work and they have so many things to do,” she says. You may also have a hard time staying asleep at night because you can’t breathe through your nose.
Davtyan recommends sinus irrigation. A neti pot helps thin mucus and flush out your sinuses with a mix of distilled water and salt.
“People who irrigate when they have a cold usually do better,” says Davtyan.
When your nasal passages become infected, that’s a sinus infection. And they’re harder to get rid of. Viruses, bacteria, or even allergies can lead to sinus infections.
Colds don’t usually cause sinus infections, says Davtyan, but they do offer a breeding ground for them.
“You touch your nose a lot when you’re sick, and each time you bring more bacteria to the sinuses,” she says. “Because your sinuses can’t drain, the bacteria stay there and grow.”
Sinus Infection Symptoms
Look for the following symptoms:
- Sinus pressure behind the eyes and the cheeks
- A runny, stuffy nose that lasts more than a week
- A worsening headache
- A fever
- Bad breath
- Thick yellow or green mucus draining from your nose or down the back of your throat (postnasal drip)
- Decreased sense of smell
Is It a Cold or Sinus Infection?
Treating Your Sinus Infection
If you think you have a sinus infection, you may need to see your doctor.
“Mostly, these acute infections go away on their own or after a simple course of antibiotics,” says ear, nose, and throat specialist Greg Davis, who practices at the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle.
Davis recommends sinus irrigation for sinus infections. It can help ease your symptoms while you wait for the antibiotics to do their job. Steroids, decongestants, and over-the-counter mucus thinners can also ease your discomfort, he says.
See an ear, nose, and throat specialist if your sinus infection doesn’t go away after one or two courses of antibiotics, Davis says.
Some people have sinus infections over and over. The only known risk factors, Davis says, are allergies and smoking (another reason to quit!) In rare cases, an acute infection can become chronic if it’s not treated successfully.
If you have chronic infections, and antibiotics and other treatments don’t help, you may need sinus surgery, Davis says.
Your doctor will enlarge the small or inflamed and swollen openings of your sinuses, allowing them to drain, and letting you breathe more easily.