Is It A Sinus Infection Or A Cold? How To Tell The Difference, According To A Doctor

by | Jun 12, 2020 | Health

When you’re stuffed up beyond the usual change of season allergy woes, one question tends to pop up a lot: Am I dealing with a cold or a full-blown sinus infection? Since both tend to lead to the same cluster of not-fun symptoms — like constant drainage, a stuffed-up nose, and that familiar sick-and-tired feeling — they’re easy to get confused.

“Telling the difference between a cold and sinus infection can be difficult,” confirms Dr. Inna Husain, an ear, nose, and throat specialist and assistant professor of otolaryngology at Rush Medical College in Chicago, Illinois.

Chances are, if you’ve only had a day or two of symptoms, you have a cold. But pain or congestion on one side of your face (as opposed to both) and bad breath for over a week could indicate that you’ve entered sinus infection territory, she says. But it gets a littttle more complicated.

A sinus infection, a.k.a. sinusitis, simply means that your sinuses (the hollow spaces surrounding your nose that produce mucus) are inflamed. Often, this is thanks to an infection from bacteria or fungus, but sometimes a respiratory virus that strikes your nose and throat — like the common cold — may lead to a sinus infection, too.

So, are you dealing with yet another cold or do you have a sinus infection? Read on to learn about the symptoms of each, plus how to deal no matter what’s making you miserable.

First: What are the symptoms of a sinus infection versus a cold?

The symptoms of a sinus infection and a cold are super similar, but sinus infections tend to last longer and get a little nastier.

Potential symptoms of a sinus infection include:

  • Stuffy nose or congestion
  • Thick white, yellow, or green mucus
  • Drainage down the back of your throat
  • Pressure or pain around your nose, cheeks, eyes, forehead, or teeth
  • Decreased sense of taste and smell
  • Bad breath
  • Weakness and fatigue
  • Cough
  • Fever

If you’re feeling sick but you’re not quite at *that* level yet, you might just have a cold (which is, of course, still not ideal!). Here are a few common symptoms of a cold:

  • Stuffy nose or congestion
  • Runny nose
  • Scratchy throat
  • Sneezing

Depending on the virus you’re dealing with, you might also experience:

  • A decrease in appetite
  • Drainage down the back of your throat
  • Headache
  • Muscle aches
  • Weakness and fatigue
  • Sore throat
  • Cough
  • A low-grade fever

As you can see, there’s quite a lot of overlap between the symptoms of a sinus infection and cold. To add to the confusion: If you thought you had a cold but it just won’t go away or has become worse over the past week or so, that could mean you have in fact developed a sinus infection.

READ MORE: 5 Ways To Boost Your Immune System And Avoid Getting Sick

Typically, doctors think of the seven to 10 day mark as their cut-off point for when “it’s probably just a cold” becomes “let’s schedule an appointment to get you checked out,” says Dr. Husain.

How do you treat a sinus infection?

Most sinus infections will clear up without antibiotics, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). If this is your case, self-care and over-the-counter medications have you covered: Stay hydrated to thin out your mucus, inhale steam out of a mug or in the shower a couple times a day, and press a warm, moist washcloth or heating pad to your face to ease any facial pain.

OTC pain medications like acetaminophen or ibuprofen can also help you ride out the most uncomfortable days of a sinus infection, says Dr. Husain.

READ MORE: This Is Why Sweating Makes You Feel A Little Better When You Have A Cold

However, if your doctor sees pus-like drainage coming out of your sinuses (ugh), that usually means you have a bacterial sinus infection. That requires a course of antibiotics and a nasal rinse and decongestant, which can help mucus clear out of your sinuses and dial down the swelling in your nasal passages, says Dr. Husain.

How do you treat a cold?

Treatment for a cold is pretty similar to what you’d do for a sinus infection. Drink up, get some rest, and if you have a headache or muscle aches, you can take OTC pain medications according to the label instructions, says Dr. Husain.

READ MORE: Can Allergies Cause Coughing — Or Is It Just A Cold?

If you’re really stuffed up, consider also snagging a nasal steroid spray along with a nasal saline rinse to thin and loosen up mucus so it’s easier to blow out of your system.

When should I see a doctor?

If you’re still feeling crappy (or even worse) after seven to 10 days, call a doctor to get checked out. Ultimately, the best way to tell the difference between a sinus infection and the common cold is to have a nasal endoscopy, which is where your doctor peers into your nose and sinuses with a thin, flexible tool to see what’s going on in there, says Dr. Husain.

In the meantime, if you begin to have more serious symptoms like trouble breathing, your fever goes over 101.3 degrees Fahrenheit or lasts five days or more, or your sore throat, headache, or sinus pain becomes just about the *only* thing that you can think about, seek medical attention ASAP.

Otherwise? Snuggle up with a cup of hot tea and catch up on your shows or zzz’s while your body does its thing.

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