A stuffed and runny nose and feeling miserable; are these the symptoms of a cold? Or could it be a sinus infection?
The symptoms often overlap, so it can be hard to tell the difference. The conditions' names only add to the confusion.
A cold is a viral respiratory infection. More than 100 different viruses cause colds. Colds spread when someone who is sick coughs or sneezes droplets containing the virus into the air. Another way to spread the virus is by sneezing on or touching a surface like a counter or sink and leaving the virus behind.
Colds can lead to sinus infections when the sinuses - the air-filled spaces behind the nose - swell up. Air, mucus, and bacteria can get trapped in the swollen sinuses and cause an infection.
The main difference between a cold and a sinus infection is how long the symptoms last. Most people get over a cold in 5-10 days. Sinusitis can stick around for 4 weeks. In some people, sinus inflammation lasts for more than 3 months - this is called chronic sinusitis.
Sinus infection symptoms vs. cold symptoms
Cold symptoms include a stuffed and runny nose, sneezing, cough, low fever, and mild body aches. The symptoms usually peak in the first 3-5 days and then gradually improve.
Symptoms of a sinus infection include a stuffed nose and nasal discharge.
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
- Headache behind the eyes
- Pain the upper jaw and teeth
- Bad breath
Sinus infection symptoms in children
Just like in 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 doesn't go away after 10-14 days. They may also be more irritable than usual.
In addition to congestion, older children and teens can have:
- A cough that doesn't get better
- Bad breath
- Tooth pain
- Ear pain
- Pain in the face
- Swelling around the eyes
If a couple of weeks have passed and a child is still sick, they should see a pediatrician. When symptoms continue for more than 3 months, a child might have chronic sinusitis. Children with chronic sinusitis should have an appointment with a pediatric ear-nose-throat (ENT) doctor for other treatment options.
Sinus infection treatments
Often, a sinus infection will better on its own. These treatments can help people feel better while their body recovers:
Decongestant nasal spray can help patients with sinus infections breathe more easily.
This medication shrinks swollen blood vessels in the nose to help patients breathe more easily. They come in pill or nasal spray form.
Nasal sprays should not be used for more than 3 days in a row because repeated use can cause congestion to come back.
People with high blood pressure should speak to a doctor before taking a decongestant as these drugs can raise blood pressure. People with heart disease or diabetes should also check with a doctor before taking decongestants.
Medications such as acetaminophen (Tylenol), aspirin, and ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil) bring down fever and relieve headaches and other sinus discomfort. Avoid giving any aspirin products to children and teenagers because of the risk of a rare but serious condition called Reye syndrome.
Steroid (corticosteroid) sprays
These sprays shrink swelling in the nasal passages. Some steroid sprays are available over the counter. Others require a prescription from a doctor. In some people, steroid sprays can slightly improve congestion, but they don't work for everyone. Steroid sprays can also cause side effects like headache and nosebleeds.
These medications treat sinusitis that's caused by bacteria - not by viruses. A doctor can prescribe a course of antibiotics lasting between 3-28 days, depending on the drug. Always complete a course of antibiotics. Stopping antibiotics too soon can make bacteria more resistant to the effects of antibiotics in the future.
If a sinus infection doesn't go away after a few months, doctors may use surgery to open up the sinuses or remove any growths that are causing a blockage
Natural and home remedies for sinus infection symptoms
Resting and drinking lots of fluids can ease the symptoms of a sinus infection.
These natural and home remedies might also help ease symptoms:
- Rest. Staying home and taking it easy until feeling better will help the body fight off the infection.
- Fluid. Water, clear broth, and other fluids help flush mucus out of the system and prevent dehydration.
- Nasal saline. A saline (salt and water) nasal spray is a more natural approach to clearing out clogged nasal passages. It will help remove the mucus that's causing congestion.
- Humidifier. Turning on a cold steam humidifier at night prevents the sinuses from drying out.
What to avoid
To avoid getting sick in the first place, stay away from anyone who appears to have an infection. Wash hands often and avoid touching hands to the eyes, nose, and mouth.
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