The common cold and sinus infections have similar enough symptoms that they’re often confused. So how do you tell if you have a cold versus a sinus infection? Unfortunately, it’s not a clear-cut answer. “The distinction can be difficult and no one rule applies to everybody,” says Neil Bhattacharyya, M.D., a professor of otolaryngology at Harvard Medical School. “Only about 2% to 6% of common colds progress to become a true bacterial sinus infection that could benefit from antibiotics.” Here’s what you need to know about both types of illnesses.
What is a sinus infection, and how is it different than a cold?
Each year, about 31 million Americans experience sinus infections—also called sinusitis—which are usually caused by germs growing in the sinuses, the hollow cavities found behind the nose, eyes, brows and cheekbones.
Most often, viruses cause sinus infections, but bacterial infections can cause sinusitis too, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Typically, a bacterial or viral infection causes mucous membranes in the sinuses to swell and block the tiny openings into the sinuses, which interferes with their ability to drain. The trapped mucus allows bacteria to breed, causing pain and pressure in the head and face.
While colds, which are also caused by viruses, can lead to sinus infections, a cold is not due to a buildup of germs in the sinus cavities. It’s also important to note that while antibiotics can be helpful for those with sinus infections, they are useless when it comes to fighting cold viruses.
What are the symptoms of a sinus infection versus a cold?
While the symptoms may be similar—runny nose, headache, fatigue—there are some differences between the two conditions that can help you determine which one you have.
The main difference between the symptoms of a cold and a sinus infection is how long they linger. Bhattacharyya says cold sufferers typically have a runny nose for two to three days, followed by a stuffy nose for two to three days. After that, most people begin to feel better. The CDC notes that the following symptoms are common with colds:
- Stuffy nose.
- Runny nose.
- Sore throat.
- Mucus dripping down your throat (postnasal drip).
- Watery eyes.
- Fever (although most people with colds do not have fever).
Alternately, sinus infections usually last a bit longer than a common cold, and may hang around for seven days or more. A fever may also signal a bacterial infection. Sinus infections are sometimes accompanied by a low-grade fever, while colds typically are not. Other viruses (such as the flu) do cause fevers, however.
Here’s what the CDC says are typical symptoms of sinus infections:
- Runny nose.
- Stuffy nose.
- Facial pain or pressure.
- Mucus dripping down the throat (postnasal drip).
- Sore throat.
- Bad breath.
Another potentially helpful sign is the color of your nasal discharge. Unlike colds, which generally produce clear mucus, bacterial infections can produce greenish or yellow mucus. However, viruses sometimes produce colorful discharge as well, so this isn’t considered a fail-safe test.
Bhattacharyya says there is no rhyme or reason as to why some people tend to develop sinus infections and others don’t. But some people have nasal polyps or other problems, including allergies, which can increase their risk of chronic sinus infections.
How do you treat a sinus infection or a cold?
For most people, there are some preventive measures that can help stave off a sinus infection or, if one occurs, to help relieve symptoms. Home remedies that can help are rest, drinking lots of fluids, breathing steam and irrigating the sinuses with saline spray or a neti pot, a container used to rinse the sinuses with saline solution.
Over-the-counter decongestants can also be helpful, but doctors say they should not be used for more than three days because some products can exacerbate congestion and raise patients’ blood pressure and heart rate.
Bacterial sinus infections typically last for about 14 days, but the use of antibiotics speeds up the recovery process by up to five days. Still, according to Bhattacharyya, about 70% of sinus infections resolve on their own, and many patients prefer to let them run their course.
“Antibiotics mainly help to speed up the healing process,” Bhattacharyya says. “But before antibiotics were around, people weren’t dropping dead of sinus infections—and they still aren’t.”
If left untreated, however, sinusitis can cause permanent damage to the sinuses and, in very rare cases, can lead to meningitis. If patients miss work or other activities due to sinus infections, or if their symptoms recur frequently, they should see a doctor for evaluation.
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