Is Your Cold Really a Sinus Infection? How to Tell

Ask yourself these questions to find out

Is Your Cold Really a Sinus Infection? How to Tell

When you have a cold, you know it isn’t serious — even if you feel miserable. But how do you know if your runny nose, headache and nagging cough are actually signs of a sinus infection? While it’s true that many of the symptoms of both illnesses overlap, there are clues to help you tell the difference.

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Rhinologist Troy Woodard, MD, describes these illnesses and shares four questions you should ask yourself to decide which you have. He also offers tips for treating your symptoms.

Here’s what a cold looks like

A cold is a virus at work in your upper respiratory system (nose, mouth, throat and lungs). Adults typically get between two and four colds per year, Dr. Woodard says. You might have a cold if you have these symptoms:

  • Runny nose
  • Stuffy nose
  • Sneezing
  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Chest congestion
  • Watery eyes

How a sinus infection happens

Colds can progress to become sinus infections, but not all sinus infections are viral. Bacteria and even allergies also can cause sinus infections, says Dr. Woodard.

“A sinus infection occurs when the sinus lining becomes inflamed, preventing the sinuses from draining,” he says. “The trapped mucous becomes a breeding ground for bacteria, which can lead to a sinus infection.”

Conditions that may make you more likely to get a sinus infection, include:

  • Allergies
  • Nasal polyps (small growths occurring in your nasal lining)
  • Immunodeficiencies (conditions that impact how well your immune system works)

Ask yourself these questions to tell the difference

Since colds and sinus infections share similar symptoms, knowing which one you have is tricky. Dr. Woodard suggests that you consider these questions:

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1. How long have you had symptoms? Cold symptoms typically peak after three to five days and then improve over the next week. A sinus infection can stick around longer, though. If you have a runny nose, stuffy nose or sinus pressure that lasts for more than 10 days, suspect an infection.

2. Do you have sinus pressure? If you have persistent facial pain, pressure or tenderness, you may have a sinus infection.

3. What color is your discharge? If you have clear mucous, you probably have a cold. If you have yellow or green mucous, it’s probably a sinus infection.

4. Do you have bad breath? If your breath has you reaching for a piece of gum, you could have a sinus infection.

Other symptoms of a sinus infection may include loss of smell and taste, cough, congestion, fever, headache, fatigue or aches in your upper jaw and teeth.

Ease your cold by treating symptoms

Since viruses can’t be cured, treating colds is primarily aimed at improving symptoms, Dr. Woodard says.

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It’s important to remember that with colds and other viruses, taking an antibiotic won’t help you feel better any faster. In fact, taking an antibiotic unnecessarily can do more harm than good. The overuse of antibiotics can lead to antibiotic resistance, which can make subsequent infections more difficult to treat, he says.

Dr. Woodard’s tips?

“Get plenty of rest, stay hydrated and rinse out your sinuses with saline irrigation, which can help thin mucous and flush it from your nasal cavity.”

When a sinus infection won’t quit

While it’s true that sinus infections sometimes clear on their own, antibiotics can sometimes shorten their duration, says Dr. Woodard.

Talk with your doctor if your symptoms don’t subside within 10 days, or if you have persistent fevers, facial swelling or neck stiffness, he says.

As with colds, rest, proper hydration and nasal irrigation can ease sinus infection symptoms.

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