Symptoms of a cold aren’t always what they seem. In fact, it’s extremely common for a regular cold to turn into something more. The most prevalent progression of a cold involves it finding its way into your sinuses as an infection. Knowing the symptoms of a sinus infection and how they differ from a cold can help identify when treatment from a doctor is necessary.
What is Sinusitis?
Sinusitis is a clinical term for a sinus infection, which occurs when something causes an infection in the sinus cavities. A sinus infection can be caused by a number of factors, including viruses, bacteria, and allergens.
While colds don’t typically cause sinus infections, it does create a perfect environment for an infection to take hold, causing the immune system to be compromised and less able to fight off infection. This is why a cold often seems to turn into a sinus infection.
Symptoms of a sinus infection
While some symptoms of a cold overlap with a sinus infection, there are some telltale signs of the difference.
Some of the notable symptoms of sinusitis are:
- A runny, stuffy nose and severe congestion, lasting more than a week
- Decreased sense of smell, as well as food tasting strange or losing flavor
- Sinus pressure that is felt mainly behind the eyes and the cheeks
- Increasingly strong headache, sometimes debilitating
- Cough and throat irritation, as well as postnasal drip that is yellow or green in color
- Notable fever
- Bad breath (likely due to the infected mucus draining down the throat)
- Chronic fatigue
The difference between a cold and a sinus infection
Comparing the list of symptoms for sinusitis to those of a cold, several of them remain the same, including runny and stuffy nose, cough, and fever.
However, take note that:
- Cold symptoms rarely last more than three to four days, whereas a sinus infection will have symptoms persisting for at least a week.
- The severity of the symptoms will continue to increase over time. For example, the sinus pressure and headache will grow and could become so bad it’s hard to get out of bed. Swelling and mucus buildup will worsen over time, and most of the time a sore throat will become raspy and downright painful, especially with cough and postnasal drip.
- A cold is less likely to affect taste buds and sense of smell noticeably, since it is less severe, and symptoms grow weaker over time. Bad breath and fatigue are also less common with a simple cold, since there is no infection the body is attempting to fight. This also leads to a less serious fever.
Treating a sinus infection
While there is little to be done about the common cold, there are several ways to take care of a sinus infection that will help relieve symptoms while also clearing up the infection. The earlier the infection is caught, the quicker it can be remedied.
One of the best things to do is to avoid problems that can lead to a sinus infection.
- Wash your hands every time you go to a bathroom, especially public restrooms.
- Use wipes and antibacterial hand wash when using shopping carts, and avoid touching your face.
- Take plenty of vitamins that build the immune system, treat any allergies to avoid getting a cold, and get immunizations against pneumonia and influenza every year to avoid complications.
Of course, there’s not a way to guarantee that a sinus infection won’t strike, even taking every precaution against it. So, when sinusitis becomes a problem, it’s probably best to see a physician, since antibiotics are typically in order.
Ear, nose, and throat specialists are most knowledgeable about treatment of sinus infections, though a general practitioner can also diagnose and prescribe medication for it. Antibiotics are usually prescribed, since they fight off infection. And a full round of antibiotics rarely fail to clear up sinusitis after a few days.
Of course, it takes time for the medication to take effect, and many doctors will recommend irrigating the sinuses to remove excess mucus and reduce swelling. Use a saline solution with a spray or squeeze bottle to accomplish this, and symptoms will be greatly improved.
An over the counter decongestant can also temporarily resolve symptoms while waiting for antibiotics to take effect. This will reduce inflammation but shouldn’t be used for more than three or four days. It could cause dry sinuses and nasal passages, which can lead to further irritation.
Another solution that may be prescribed with the antibiotics are corticosteroids. These can be oral, though the nasal spray tends to be more effective. The steroid will quickly reduce inflammation so symptoms are relieved sooner, and they are safer for long term use.
A cold and sinus infection are not the same beast, and while most of the treatments for colds are over the counter and home remedies, sinusitis often requires medical attention. Usually, a round of antibiotics is sufficient to remedy the infection, but if it’s been going on for a long time or is a severe infection, the doctor may also prescribe a steroid, preferably in a nasal spray version.
A sinus infection may not be caused by a cold, but a cold can easily lead into sinusitis, since it causes a compromised immune system. Avoiding environments where there are a number of sick people, such as when a bug is going around the office, can reduce the likelihood of ending up with a sinus infection. Also, good hygiene – especially washing hands – can help keep you safe from colds.
Since allergies can also lead to colds and sinus infections, it’s important to treat allergies early and on a regular basis to avoid serious consequences. That’s especially true of those with asthma, who can suffer greatly with sinusitis.