Knowing the Difference Can Help
A respiratory infection is never a pleasant experience. A stuffy head and a runny nose can have you scurrying back under the covers. But how can you tell if you’re dealing with a sinus infection or a common cold? Identifying the difference between the two can help you decide when it’s time to see your doctor.
What is the common cold?
The common cold is the primary reason why most people miss work and school. Looking at the data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), adults experience about two to three colds each year. Children, on the other hand, have even more colds each year. Colds are caused by a variety of viruses that trigger inflammation within the nose and throat. The most common cold-causing virus is the rhinovirus, but as many as 200 other cold viruses exist.
Despite what most people say, cold temperatures do not cause the common cold. Cold weather, however, does encourage the spread of the common cold. When the weather is cold, more people gather indoors where the virus can spread easily from person to person. In addition, the low humidity that typically accompanies cold winter weather dries the nasal passages, making them more vulnerable to cold viruses.
Cold viruses spread through droplets from an infected person. Airborne droplets fly through the air from a cough or a sneeze and are inhaled by another person.
Colds also spread through surfaces; for example, an infected person may spread cold viruses when they cover their mouth when coughing and forget to wash their hands. The viruses on their hands stick to items they touch, like doorknobs and keyboards. Another person may touch these surfaces and pick up the cold viruses, resulting in an infection.
Symptoms of the common cold include:
- Watery mucus from the nose.
- Watery eyes.
- Low-grade fever.
- Scratchy throat.
Most cold symptoms begin about two to three days after exposure to the cold virus. Most bouts of the common cold can last from several days to as long as several weeks. Many symptoms of the common cold are similar to the symptoms of other common respiratory infections.
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What is a sinus infection?
A sinus infection, also known as sinusitis, is an infection of the sinus cavities that causes inflammation of the area. The sinus cavities are air-filled pockets on either side of the bridge of the nose and behind the forehead. In rare cases, a sinus infection may result from a fungal infection – typically molds – or a virus. However, unlike a cold, most sinus infections are caused by a bacterial infection rather than a virus.
An infection in this area causes the following symptoms:
- Pain in the cheeks, forehead, or eye area.
- Postnasal drip.
- Nasal congestion.
- Discolored discharge from the nose (greenish).
- Facial tenderness.
- Bad breath.
Sinus infections are sometimes mistaken for rhinitis. While they are very similar, rhinitis only involves the passages of the nasal area. A sinus infection, Sinusitis, affects the sinus cavities, which produce the mucus that drains into the nose. An acute (short-term) sinus infection may last from 4 to 12 weeks. A chronic sinus infection lasts more than twelve weeks. A person with a recurrent sinus infection experiences several sinus infections within one year.
Is it a Sinus Infection or the Common Cold?
Although sinus infections and colds have many similarities, there are two primary ways to tell the difference. Colds typically resolve on their own after five days. Sinus infections, on the other hand, can last for weeks or months. If it’s been a week or more and symptoms still remain, the infection is probably sinusitis.
Cold symptoms also improve after a few days, becoming less severe until the symptoms are gone. In contrast, sinus infection symptoms may remain the same for weeks or months. Therefore, if symptoms worsen or don’t improve, the infection may be sinus-related.
Knowing how to decipher between a sinus infection and a cold is important because the treatments are different. Colds are typically caused by viruses, which means antibiotics would not be an effective treatment for cold symptoms. Because most sinus infections are caused by bacteria, antibiotics may be necessary for chronic or severe cases. Moreover, treatment-resistant sinusitis may require surgery as a last result.
Prevention is Key
The best treatment, however, is prevention. You can keep yourself and others healthy by:
- Practicing thorough handwashing.
- Avoiding touching your nose, mouth, and eyes.
- Covering your nose and mouth with a tissue when coughing or sneezing.
- Staying home when you’re not feeling well.
- Getting all physician-recommended vaccines.
If you’re experiencing worsening “cold symptoms,” or your cold is lingering for more than a few weeks, you may have a sinus infection. A visit to a health professional can confirm a diagnosis and recommend treatments like antibiotics or an antihistamine.
Knowing the difference between a sinus infection and cold can be a real lifesaver. But we can't forget about allergies vs. cold. It's always good to know the signs.