Without fail, that pesky cold hits you out of nowhere again. You feel miserable but still have to go on with your daily responsibilities, even when you know the cold isn’t serious.
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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.
Rhinologist Troy Woodard, MD, describes these illnesses and shares four questions you should ask yourself to decide which you have, plus tips for treating your symptoms.
A cold is a virus at work in your upper respiratory system (nose, mouth, throat and lungs). Typically, adults get between two and four colds per year with symptoms like:
Colds can progress to become sinus infections, but not all sinus infections are viral. Bacteria and even allergies also can cause sinus infections.
“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:
When it comes to the battle between a sinus infection vs. cold, knowing which one you have is tricky. Dr. Woodard suggests that you consider these questions to tell the difference between the two:
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.
Since viruses can’t be cured, treating colds is primarily aimed at improving symptoms.
“It’s important to remember that with colds and other viruses, taking an antibiotic won’t help you feel better any faster,” says Dr. Woodard. “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.
“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,” he says.
While it’s true that sinus infections sometimes clear on their own, antibiotics can sometimes shorten their duration.
Talk with your doctor if your symptoms don’t subside within 10 days or if you have persistent fevers, facial swelling or neck stiffness. As with colds, make sure you hit the sheets and get enough rest and drink your H2O. Proper hydration and nasal irrigation can ease sinus infection symptoms.