Is It a Sinus Infection or a Cold?

By Gabriel Espinoza, MD

October 04, 2021

Sinusinfection Or Allergy

As the temperature drops and more people start venturing outdoors, viruses that cause the common cold become more prevalent. It’s important to remember that cold weather does not cause the cold virus, but scientists have found that low temperatures decrease the defenses against the virus that causes the common cold.

Runny nose, stuffy nose, headache, sore throat, and a cough can be some of the symptoms you may experience with a cold. These symptoms may also be present with sinus infections that may first appear to be a cold but persist and cause sinus pressure and headaches.

Read on to learn the differences between a cold and a sinus infection and the treatment for both these conditions.

The Common Cold

Rhinoviruses are the main culprits that cause the common cold in adults and children. These are viruses that thrive in the nose. They are spread easily from person to person. This is especially true for children, as many of the surfaces that these viruses live on belong to objects that little ones put in their mouths.

Some of the first symptoms of the common cold you will first experience include a sore throat and a runny nose. Other symptoms include:

  • Coughing
  • Sneezing
  • Headaches
  • Body Aches

Symptoms will last anywhere between a week to 10 days, but those with respiratory conditions like asthma or cystic fibrosis may develop more critical illnesses like pneumonia.

Treating the Common Cold

The mainstay treatment for the common cold is support and hydration. Your local pharmacist can help you decide which over-the-counter medication is best for you. Both acetaminophen and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen can help reduce fevers.

NSAIDs can be effective in relieving the discomfort that is caused by a cold. Discuss with your doctor if NSAIDs are appropriate for you since these should be avoided in those with kidney conditions or gastrointestinal bleeding and children under six months of age.

Acetaminophen may also help relieve congestion and runny nose but may not help with other symptoms like sore throat, fatigue, sneezing, and cough. Speak with your pharmacist or doctor if you are considering taking acetaminophen for your cold. The maximum daily dose of acetaminophen is 4,000 mg per day. At higher doses, acetaminophen can be toxic to the liver.

Other over-the-counter medications that can help with the common cold symptoms include decongestants, both nasal or oral, like pseudoephedrine (Sudafed). You can use other medicines that contain decongestants like guaifenesin (Mucinex) or dextromethorphan (Robitussin), but these options have limited evidence for their effectiveness.

Sinus Infections

Your sinuses are four airfield cavities in the skulls. They are interconnected by narrow passages and make thin mucus that drains out of the nose. The purpose of this fluid is to help keep your nose clean and free of bacteria.

Although the sinuses are typically filled with air, they can become blocked and filled with fluid. This usually occurs after a common cold, which predisposes them to infection from viruses or bacteria. Viruses are the most common causes of sinus infections. Some of the risk factors for sinus infections include:

  • A previous cold
  • Seasonal allergies
  • Smoking and secondhand smoke
  • Structural problems in the sinuses
  • A weak immune system, or drugs that weaken the immune system

The symptoms of sinus infections are like those of the common cold with a sore throat, cough, runny nose, stuffy nose, and headache, but the most significant difference includes:

  • Facial pain or pressure
  • Runny nose
  • Stuffy nose
  • Mucus dripping down the throat

Consult with your doctor if you experience any of the following:

  • Your symptoms of cough, congestion, or post-nasal drip have lasted more than ten days without improvement or worsen
  • You have a fever greater than 102 degrees Fahrenheit
  • You have thick yellow discharge from your nose or teeth

These can be signs of bacterial infection and may indicate that you need antibiotic treatment.

Treatment for Sinus Infection

If your doctor suspects that you have a sinus infection, they may prescribe antibiotics.

Other treatments for sinus infections due to viruses include nasal decongestant sprays like Afrin, which provide relief. Additional options include intranasal saline irrigation, which can help soften up the mucus. If drug therapies aren’t working and you have chronic sinus infections, your doctor may recommend surgery as a last resort.

Like the common cold, acetaminophen and NSAIDs may also provide some relief. Speak with your local pharmacist to see if a prescription savings card can help get the best price for over-the-counter medications for sinus infections or the common cold.

Staying Healthy

As the weather turns colder, you can prevent infections by washing your hands and avoiding close contact with people who have had colds or upper respiratory infections. Other ways to take care of yourself include not smoking, avoiding secondhand smoke, and making sure you’ve received recommended vaccines to protect against respiratory viruses.

 

Gabriel Espinoza, MD has experience in caring for patients in both primary care and emergency settings. Some of the topics he has focused on during his medical career include various areas in public health, pediatrics, and wellness. He has co-authored a chapter on the utility of point of care ultrasound in the diagnoses of various eye conditions. The content written by Dr. Espinoza is for information and educational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

References:

  1. https://www.nature.com/articles/nature.2013.13025
  2. https://www.healthychildren.org/English/health-issues/conditions/ear-nose-throat/Pages/Rhinovirus-Infections.aspx
  3. https://www.cdc.gov/features/rhinoviruses/index.html
  4. https://www.cochrane.org/CD006362/ARI_non-steroidal-anti-inflammatory-drugs-common-cold
  5. https://www.aafp.org/afp/2009/1215/p1371.html
  6. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/17701-sinusitis
  7. https://www.cdc.gov/antibiotic-use/sinus-infection.html
  8. https://acaai.org/allergies/allergic-conditions/sinus-infection/
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