Is it an Allergy, Cold or Sinus Infection?

When your runny nose persists, you could have a sinus infection. Learn the difference between allergy, cold and sinusitis.

By Emily Gurnon, Contributing Writer

If you have seasonal allergies, you probably expect to sneeze when the pollen levels jump. Allergies also may cause your eyes to itch. Your nose gets runny and stuffed up. Depending on what you are allergic to, allergies may last weeks.

If you are sneezing, coughing and have a sore throat, you guessed it: You likely have a cold. Colds also come with a runny and stuffed-up nose. And those symptoms can last three to 14 days.

But what if you have sinusitis? The symptoms of these conditions may not always be clear-cut, so sinusitis may be a possibility.

Sinusitis means your sinuses are inflamed.

What is sinusitis?
Sinusitis is an inflammation of the sinus cavities. The sinus cavities get red and swollen. You can have inflamed sinuses and symptoms without having a sinus infection. Often, the inflammation is due to an allergic reaction. 

Sinusitis may be acute, sub-acute, chronic and recurrent. Doctors classify them depending on their cause, how often they happen, and how long they last. Acute sinusitis lasts up to four weeks. Chronic sinusitis lasts more than 12 weeks and may linger months or years.

What is a sinus infection?
An acute sinus infection is usually caused by a virus and comes after a cold. A sinus infection can also be caused by allergies or pollution. Rarely, it is caused by bacteria.

Symptoms of sinus infection
One of the most common symptoms of a sinus infection is pain. You may have a terrible headache. Or pain in your upper jaw or teeth. Or tenderness on the sides of your nose or between your eyes. Most people with a sinus infection hurt in several different places.

Another common symptom is thick mucus from the nose that is yellowish, greenish, white or blood-tinged. It can drain down the back of the throat and be difficult to clear. Importantly, discolored mucous does not distinguish between a viral or bacterial cause of a sinus infection.

Sinus infections may also cause fever, fatigue and bad breath.

Treatment of sinus infections
If you have an acute viral sinus infection, it will likely go away on its own. In the meantime, you maybe recommended to take pain relievers for the headache and tenderness in your face. Warm compresses may also help relieve sinus pressure.

For some people, decongestants may make it easier to breathe by shrinking the membranes in the nose. Decongestants can come in nasal spray or pill form. Check with your doctor before you start using a decongestant as they are not recommended for everyone. If he or she gives you the go-ahead, check which type is best for you. And remember: It is important to read and follow the package directions.

Antibiotics will not work unless your sinus infection is caused by bacteria. Talk to your doctor if you have any questions.