Sinusitis or a cold?

In most cases, when you have a runny nose, headache, and persistent cough, you have the common cold. As the name suggests, the disease is contagious and widespread, making it the most common reason for doctor visits in the United States. On average, adults get 2 to 4 colds per year, and infants and young children get 6 to 8 colds.

While a sinus infection (also called “sinusitis”) shares many symptoms with the common cold and can be a complication of it, there are some key differences. An estimated 11.6 percent of U.S. adults develop these nasal infections, which tend to be more serious. Unlike the common cold, sinus infections can be either viral or bacterial.

This article describes the main similarities and differences between the common cold and sinus infections, and how to care for these respiratory illnesses.

Sinus Infections and Colds

Distinguishing the common cold from a sinus infection can be challenging for both patients and healthcare providers. The two conditions share many features, and in some cases, a sinus infection is a complication of a cold. However, there are a few key differences:

  • Why: The common cold is caused by infection with any one of 200 viruses, with rhinoviruses being the most common. While viral infections also cause most sinus infections, more severe types can occur due to bacterial exposure. Also, allergies and nasal polyps (growths) in the sinuses may increase the risk of sinusitis.
  • Duration: While cold symptoms usually begin to improve after three to five days, sinusitis, especially bacterial rhinitis, can last longer or not go away at all. If symptoms persist for 10 days or more without getting better, your cold is most likely a sinus or other type of infection.
  • Sinus pressure/facial pain: While you may experience some sinus pressure from the common cold, this is a common sign of a sinus infection. Due to this congestion, facial pain and tenderness can also occur.
  • Mucus: While the mucus produced during a cold is usually clearer, a sinus infection can produce a thicker, yellowish or greenish discharge. A bacterial sinus infection can cause a pus-like discharge from your nose.
  • Symptoms: In addition to cold symptoms, a sinus infection can cause loss of taste or smell, high fever, fatigue, and body aches. Fever is more prominent with sinus infections, which may or may not occur in cases of the common cold. Bad breath (bad breath) is another sign of a sinus infection.

sinus infection

First, a sinus infection occurs when the sinuses (the passages that connect the mouth, ears, and eyes) are exposed to viruses, bacteria, or fungi. This causes tissue inflammation, prevents mucus from expelling from the body, and makes the sinuses a breeding ground for bacteria.

The most common risk factors for sinus infections include:

  • cold complications
  • Infection with another virus, bacteria or fungus
  • Nasal polyps (sinus growths)
  • allergic reaction
  • Deviated nasal septum
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While many sinus infections are complications of the common cold caused by viruses, sometimes bacteria and fungi can cause superimposed infections that the body’s immune system has a harder time fighting. Basically, other pathogens are more susceptible to infection when your immune system is already fighting off the disease. Bacterial and fungal sinus infections often appear this way.

chronic sinus infection

Cases of sinus infection lasting more than 12 weeks are considered chronic. These cases may require additional treatment or surgery.


The main symptoms of a sinus infection include:

  • Postnasal drip (mucus in the throat)
  • fever
  • Facial pressure and/or pain
  • stuffy and runny nose
  • headache
  • loss of taste and smell
  • bad breath (bad breath)
  • sore throat


In most cases, a sinus infection resolves as your body’s immune system attacks and destroys the infectious agent. Correct diagnosis is critical, and your doctor needs to know if you have viral or bacterial sinusitis. While antibiotics don’t work for viral cases, they can be used for bacterial cases.

Often, treatment focuses on controlling the severity of symptoms when natural immunity takes over. For milder cases and those within the first 10 days, over-the-counter and home remedies include:

  • Analgesics (pain relievers) such as Tylenol (acetaminophen), Advil (ibuprofen), or Aleve (naproxen)
  • Allergy medications like the antihistamines Claritin (loratadine) and benadrine (diphenhydramine)
  • Get enough rest and stay hydrated
  • nasal saline rinse

What about decongestants?

Decongestants are not recommended for adults or children with acute sinusitis and should not be used for more than three to five days to prevent rebound congestion.

If symptoms persist or worsen after 10 days, your doctor may prescribe:

  • antibiotics (for bacterial sinus infections) such as Moxatag (amoxicillin) or Augmentin (amoxicillin/clavulanate potassium)
  • stronger topical or oral decongestants
  • Intranasal steroids, such as Flonase (fluticasone propionate) and Nasonex (mometasone furoate)

Chronic sinus infections require additional treatment, focusing on controlling the severity of symptoms. Leukotriene antagonist medication may be prescribed, and surgery may be considered in cases of diaphragm deviation.


The common cold is a mild viral infection of the upper respiratory system caused by a variety of viruses. Rhinoviruses are the most common pathogens, but there are more than 200 other pathogens, some of which are more common with coronaviruses and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).

Colds are usually spread by coughing or exhaling droplets or infected surfaces. They are highly contagious and are more likely to infect young children, the elderly, those with respiratory conditions and those with weakened immune systems. In most cases, they resolve without medical treatment. You may experience many colds in your life.


Symptoms of the common cold appear within one to two days of infection. They usually subside within 7 to 10 days, and most feel better after a few days. Typical symptoms of the common cold include:

  • runny nose
  • sinus pressure
  • sore throat
  • sneeze
  • cough
  • headache
  • body pain

If symptoms persist for more than 10 days, it is likely that your cold has developed complications or other illnesses are causing them.

fever and cold

While mild fever may accompany the early onset of colds and is common in children or infants with colds, it is not typical of this disease in adults.


Most people do not need special treatment for the common cold, and there is no vaccine or complete cure. As with sinus infections, symptom management is at the heart of care as your body builds immunity and fights off infection. If you are sick, it is recommended that you do the following:

  • get enough rest and sleep
  • stay home from get off work or school
  • drink liquid
  • quit smoking or temporarily stop smoking
  • stay away from alcohol and caffeine

Additionally, some medications can help, many of which are also used for sinus infections:

  • rescue the suffering
  • Decongestant
  • cough medicine
  • antihistamines
  • expectorant


Making sure your symptoms aren’t just a cold, but possibly a sinus infection, is critical to managing the condition. It is also important for your doctor to determine if you are experiencing a viral or bacterial infection, as this can affect treatment.

So how is this respiratory disease diagnosed? Here’s a quick breakdown:

  • Medical Conditions and History: Your healthcare provider will discuss your symptoms with you and review your past or current conditions.
  • Physical assessment: They will assess your nasal passages, throat, and ear canals for mucus buildup and any signs of inflammation or other infection.
  • Endoscopy: In some cases, you may need to see an ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist.Other techniques used include Rhinoscopythey use an endoscope (a specialized camera on a retractable tube) to access and assess the sinuses.
  • Allergy and blood tests: Since they can also cause symptoms of a cold or sinus infection, the diagnosis may involve a skin or blood allergy test. Some cases require certain blood tests, such as sedimentation rate and CBC.
  • Culture: Your mucus sample may be tested in a clinical laboratory to assess whether the infection is viral or bacterial in nature.
  • Imaging: In some cases, the doctor needs to get a more thorough understanding of the problem within the sinuses. Imaging techniques such as computed tomography (CT) or X-rays can be used.

When to talk to your doctor

While most colds — even sinus infections — clear up on their own, it’s important to know when you need medical help. You should call your doctor at this point if you have symptoms:

  • Your symptoms persist or worsen after 10 days.
  • Pain and discomfort are severe.
  • You have a stiff neck or swelling around your eyes.
  • You are experiencing changes in vision or mental function.
  • Symptoms disappeared, but then reappeared.
  • You have a fever (over 100.4 degrees) for more than a few days.


Differentiating between common cold and sinus infection can be challenging for patients and health care institutions. However, there are some key differences. Colds are more common than sinus infections, and symptoms tend to improve more quickly. Sinusitis tends to persist and cause sinus pressure, facial pain, and yellow or green mucus. Sinus infections can also cause loss of taste or smell, high fever, fatigue, and body aches.

Thankfully, both conditions are treatable. Rest, relaxation, and rehydration are great home remedies. Drug treatment depends on whether the infection is caused by a virus or bacteria.

VigorTip words

We’ve all experienced colds before, and it’s no fun. While it’s easy to try and fix, symptoms of respiratory illnesses like the common cold and sinus infections should never be taken lightly. Taking time to rest and recover properly will help ensure your condition doesn’t get worse. While your chances of not needing medical care are much greater, you should not hesitate to seek it out when you need it or when you need it.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Is sinusitis contagious?

    Some viral sinus infections, such as complications of the common cold, can be contagious. However, bacterial sinusitis does not spread from person to person.

    understand more:

    What is a sinus infection?

  • How long do sinus infections last?

    Sinusitis usually lasts longer than a cold; although cases can resolve within 10 days, symptoms can last up to a month. If your symptoms don’t go away after three months, you’re considered to have a chronic sinus infection.

    understand more:

    Symptoms of a Sinus Infection

  • Is there anything you can do to restore your sense of taste after a sinus infection?

    Loss of taste and smell can sometimes accompany a sinus infection. In most cases, they recur on their own, and treating the underlying cause of the sinusitis usually causes them to recur. If the condition persists, scent training therapy can help, although sometimes (rarely) the loss is permanent.

  • What Causes Sinus Infections?

    Most sinus infections are caused by viral infections, such as those that cause the common cold, including rhinovirus and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). Bacteria can also cause sinusitis; these tend to occur when the cold is present because the immune system is weakened. In addition, people with allergies and nasal polyps (growths) in the nasal and facial cavities are at greater risk for sinus infections.

    understand more:

    Symptoms of a Sinus Infection