Sydney is a contributing health writer and editor who enjoys shedding light on health topics, making information available to anyone who wants it, and ending stigmas or lack of access to care and treatment.
Po-Chang Hsu, M.D.
Dr. Hsu received his medical degree from Tufts University in Boston, Massachusetts, and holds a Master’s of Science degree from both Harvard University and Tufts University. Outside of the medical profession, Dr. Hsu loves to write, learn new languages, and travel.
March 17, 2021
Sinus infections, or sinusitis, can often get mixed up with a common cold. The big indicator that your symptoms have turned into a sinus infection is aching and pain in your head and face due to inflammation of your sinuses.
Some symptoms experienced with sinus infections and colds include:
According to the CDC, adults in the U.S. contract an average of 2-3 colds every year, and children may come down with the cold even more often. Shockingly, 22 million school days are lost every year due to colds or sinus infections.
Whether you have a cold, sinus infection, or can’t tell the difference between the two, you need the right information to get better. While both illnesses can usually be cleared from your system with symptomatic treatments and rest, a sinus infection can have serious complications, including turning into a bacterial infection, so telling the difference between a sinus infection vs. a cold could make a huge impact.
The symptoms of the common cold are usually mild. Instead of causing pain and inflammation, colds cause fatigue and fever. Common symptoms associated with colds include:
Usually, a common cold will subside after 1-2 weeks if you take proper care of yourself. Colds can persist longer than usual, but unless you’re immunocompromised, your body will clear this sickness in most cases, and you shouldn’t worry too much.
Sinus infections are a little bit different. Where sinusitis and the common cold overlap in symptoms are:
The difference is that the headache associated with a sinus infection can be quite severe, and you’ll feel immense pressure in your head, ears, nose, and around your eyes.
Those suffering from sinus infections report that they feel pressure in their face and that when they lean forward, the pressure gets worse. The duration of sinus infection depends on the type and severity of it. Acute cases will go away in as short as one week, while chronic cases can last beyond 3 weeks.
For the most part, you won’t feel much head pressure of inflammation with a common cold, but this is the hallmark trait of a sinus infection.
The main difference between these illnesses is the pressure buildup in the head. With the cold, you may get a stuffy nose, but you won’t feel much pressure in your head, ears, and eyes.
When you have a sinus infection, you will feel immense pressure in the infected areas of your sinus passages. If you think you have a sinus infection, try leaning forward slowly. If you notice a feeling of pressure in your face that gets worse the further you lean, your sinuses are most likely infected.
There are two different types of sinus infection, each with slightly different causes. They are:
Bacterial infections cause inflammation of the mucous membrane lining your sinuses, which are essentially a system of tubes located all around your eye sockets and nose.
Once your sinuses are inflamed, pain around the nose, forehead, around the eyes, and in the cheeks will follow. You might have a stuffy or runny nose that secretes thick, sometimes discolored discharge. This is caused by bacterial colonies making their way into your sinus passages.
This happens when you touch your eyes, nose, and ears too much or if you inhale a large amount of pollen during spring. Sinus infections are very common, as 35 million Americans contract a sinus infection at least once per year.
There are also viral sinus infections that have the same symptoms as bacterial sinus infections. The key difference is that these are caused by a virus that has spread to the sinus. Getting the common cold often leads to bacterial sinus infections since you tend to touch your nose and face more when you’re sick.
The common cold is caused by a virus that infects your upper respiratory system. “More than 200 viruses can cause a common cold. The most common culprits — responsible for up to 40% of colds — come from a family of viruses called rhinoviruses”, according to Harvard Medical School.
The symptoms of the cold are virtually the same regardless of the virus that causes it. Colds are considered ultimately harmless, only becoming dangerous if the victim is immunocompromised.
Luckily since they have similar symptoms, sinus infection and cold treatments also overlap quite a bit. The first treatment is over the counter medication. These over-the-counter medications provide symptomatic relief:
For colds and viral sinus infections, most bodies with typical immune systems can fight off these illnesses. Taking over the counter medications only relieves symptoms, allowing you to go about your day while your immune system works on killing the virus. If you take these medications to reduce swelling and congestion, it might help prevent your viral cold from turning into a sinus infection.
A bacterial sinus infection might require antibiotics if symptoms don’t let up. You can make an appointment with our sister site Plushcare, where board-certified doctors are available for online appointments to discuss symptoms and treatments and prescribe antibiotics or other medications if necessary. Book a time to speak to a doctor now if you believe you might need antibiotics for your bacterial sinus infection.
Luckily, since so many of the symptoms of colds and sinus infections are similar, regardless of what you have, the at-home remedies will likely work for either. Some steps you can take to relieving your symptoms or prevent them from worsening:
Specifically for a sinus infection, clearing and flushing out your sinuses is the best way to prevent your infection from worsening. Some ways to do this include:
Luckily, most colds don’t have many complications (besides turning into a sinus infection!).
On the other hand, sinus infections can have fairly severe complications. It’s important to note that as well as being classified as either bacterial or viral, sinus infections are also classified depending on severity:
Complications of sinus infection include:
For a common cold or viral sinus infection, most doctors will prescribe you something similar to what you’d find in the store. It might be a higher dosage or more affordable because it’s through your health insurance.
Most doctors will prescribe antibiotics for a bacterial sinus infection, and it will clear up relatively fast in most cases. You can book an appointment through our partner site PlushCare, where top online doctors are available to talk symptoms, diagnosis, and prescribe you the necessary medications.
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