Is it a cold or sinusitis? Learn to spot the symptoms of a sinus infection

The symptoms often overlap, so it can be difficult to recognize each condition. Rhinitis is the term for a cold, while sinusitis is a sinus infection.

More than 100 different viruses cause a cold, a type of viral infection of the respiratory system. Colds spread when someone who has the virus coughs or sneezes droplets containing the virus into the air. They can also transmit when a person with a cold sneezes on or touches a surface, leaving the virus behind to infect a new host.

The air-filled sacs behind the nose are called the sinuses. Colds can lead to sinus infections when the sinuses swell up. Air, mucus, and bacteria can become trapped in the swollen sinuses and cause further infection.

The main difference between a cold and a sinus infection is the duration of symptoms. Most people recover from a cold in 5 to 10 days. Sinusitis can remain in the body for 4 weeks or for over 3 months in people with a chronic case of the condition.

  • Sinusitis is an infection of the spaces behind the nose.
  • Sinusitis symptoms can last for 4 weeks or longer, whereas a cold will generally resolve far more quickly.
  • Medicinal or surgical treatment may be required to cure sinusitis, but a cold cannot be treated.

Sinus infection symptoms vs. cold symptoms

Cold symptoms include:

  • a stuffed and runny nose
  • sneezing
  • a cough
  • low fever
  • mild body aches

These symptoms usually peak in the first 3 to 5 days and then improve gradually. Most people do not have symptoms past 10 days to 2 weeks.

Symptoms of a sinus infection may be more severe and can last for 4 weeks or longer. They include:

  • stuffed nose
  • thick yellow or green nasal discharge
  • pain in the face – especially around the eyes, nose, cheeks, and forehead
  • a headache behind the eyes
  • a cough
  • pain in the upper jaw and teeth
  • fever
  • fatigue
  • bad breath

Sinusitis may clear up without treatment but is more likely to need medical intervention than a cold.

As with adults, sinus infection symptoms in children are easy to confuse with those of a cold.

Young children are most likely to have cold-like symptoms, including a stuffed nose with yellow-green discharge and a slight fever that persists beyond 10 to 14 days. They may also be more irritable than usual.

In addition to congestion, older children and teens can have:

  • a cough that does not resolve
  • bad breath
  • tooth pain
  • ear pain
  • pain in the face
  • a headache
  • swelling around the eyes

If a child is still sick after 14 days, or if the temperature rises further or continues for more than 3 days despite treatment with acetaminophen, they should see a pediatrician.

A child might have chronic sinusitis if symptoms continue for longer than months. Children with chronic sinusitis should visit a pediatric ear, nose, and throat (ENT) doctor to find out about other treatment options.

These natural and home remedies might also help ease symptoms:

  • Rest: Staying home and resting until you feel better will help your body fight the infection.
  • Fluids: Water, clear broth, and other fluids can help flush mucus from the system and prevent dehydration.
  • Nasal saline: A nasal spray made from saltwater solution is a more natural approach to clearing out clogged nasal passages. It will help remove the mucus, relieving congestion. Saline solution can sometimes be applied using a neti pot. Click here for a fantastic range of neti pots, available online.
  • Humidifier: Turning on a cold steam humidifier at night prevents the sinuses from drying out. A wide range is available to purchase online – click here for access.

What to avoid

To avoid getting sick, stay away from anyone who appears to have an infection. Wash the hands frequently, and avoid touching the eyes, nose, and mouth.

When to call a doctor

Whatever the cause, people should call a doctor if any of these symptoms develop:

  • a persistent cough
  • fever over 103º Fahrenheit
  • rash
  • shortness of breath, wheezing
  • vomiting

Seek medical attention after a couple of weeks of sinus infection symptoms that do not improve or are getting worse.

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