Is It a Common Cold or a Sneaky Sinus Infection?

Woman blowing nose.
By Dr. Peter Klapper Ph.D.

It’s sniffle season, and with that, comes a whole lot of runny noses, coughs, congestion, and headaches. While most common colds are treated easily by rest and home remedies, it’s important to know the difference between the common cold and a sinus infection, especially to make sure you’re seeking the proper treatment.

Common Cold Vs. Sinus Infection
So, how do you know if your sniffles and congestion are your average common cold or a sinus infection (also known as sinusitis)? First, it is important to understand that the common cold is a viral infection of the upper respiratory tract, usually caused by rhinoviruses. The onset is gradual, and the symptoms generally peak within the first few days and start to improve after a week.

Viral sinus infections tend to occur when the air-filled cavities around the nasal passage become inflamed or infected. When your sinus doesn’t drain effectively, mucus accumulates and creates an environment in which bacteria thrives. This is what leads to a secondary bacterial infection in the sinuses. Unlike a common cold, sinus infections tend to persist for weeks, and the symptoms can be more intense.

Identifying Key Symptoms
While some symptoms of the common cold and sinus infections are similar, it’s important know that there are differences.

Common Cold Symptoms:

  • Runny nose and nasal discharge: Typically, clear, and watery.
  • Sore throat
  • Sneezing
  • Cough
  • Mild headache
  • Mild fever

Sinus Infection Symptoms:

  • Nasal Discharge: Thicker, often yellow, or green in color due to bacterial presence.
  • Facial Pain or Pressure (Sinus headache): Prominent around the forehead, eyes, teeth, and cheeks.
  • Congestion: More severe and might worsen at night.
  • Fever: More likely to have a higher fever compared to a cold.
  • Fatigue: Feeling generally unwell due to the infection.

Testing and Treatment
If your cold doesn’t begin to improve after a week, your nasal discharge is yellow or green and the pressure in your face is unbearable, it’s time to schedule a visit with your doctor. Once diagnosed, whether it’s a cold or sinus infection, home remedies can provide much needed relief.

Common Cold Natural Treatment:

  • Drinking plenty of fluids like water or tea.
  • Allowing for the body to rest.
  • Soaking in a warm bath.
  • Mixing honey and lemon into tea.
  • Vapor rubs for the chest, necks, shoulders, and upper lip.
  • Cold and Flu Maximum Strength Medicine.

Sinus Infection Natural Treatment:

  • Using a saline nasal irrigation or saline nasal rinse (netipot).
  • Steam inhalation.
  • Warm compress on the face.
  • Drinking plenty of fluids.
  • Using a humidifier.
  • Getting plenty of rest.
  • Sinus Relief Maximum Strength.

Most treatments above can be used for each illness, and additionally, over the counter (OTC) pain relievers and decongestants can provide temporary relief. Consult with your provider on what is best for you.

Distinguishing between a common cold and a sinus infection can be challenging due to the overlapping symptoms, but remember, the duration, intensity of symptoms, type of nasal discharge, and the presence of facial pain or pressure and fever are crucial factors to help you distinguish between the two and onto a path of getting the right treatment.

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