Sinus Infections vs. Colds: Decoding Symptoms & When to Seek Help

October 20, 2023
Picture of a woman with a sinus infection blowing her nose into a tissue and sitting on a couch under a blanket.

When the sniffles hit and your nose feels stuffy, it’s easy to wonder if it’s just a common cold or a sinus infection. Understanding the differences in symptoms and knowing when to seek medical attention can help you find relief faster, so you can get back to feeling your best as soon as possible.

Cold Symptoms: Recognizing the Usual Suspect

Colds, which are caused by viral infections, can produce a number of unpleasant symptoms. While most colds run their course within a few days, they can still leave you feeling under the weather until they resolve. Look out for these common cold symptoms the next time you’re not feeling quite right:

  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Sneezing
  • Low-grade fever

Most colds don’t require medical attention. Sometimes, however, sinus infections can develop and linger for weeks or even months. When this occurs, it's important to see a doctor to determine if the cause is bacterial or viral.

Causes of the Common Cold

The common cold is caused by viruses. Rhinoviruses are the most common culprits, but there are several other viruses that can also lead to cold symptoms, such as coronaviruses, adenoviruses, and enteroviruses. It's important to note that there are numerous strains and subtypes of viruses within each of these groups, contributing to the diversity of viruses that can cause the common cold. Viruses responsible for the common cold are highly contagious and are usually spread through direct contact with infected individuals, airborne droplets from coughs or sneezes, and by touching contaminated surfaces and then touching the face, particularly the nose, mouth, or eyes.

Sinus Infection Symptoms: When It’s More Than Just a Cold

Sinus infections, also known as acute sinusitis or rhinosinusitis, can turn your nasal troubles up a notch. These infections cause the nasal cavities to swell and become inflamed, leading to telltale symptoms such as:

  • Breathing difficulties
  • Facial pain
  • Headache
  • Congestion
  • Cough
  • Yellow- or green-colored discharge
  • Pressure and tenderness around the eyes
  • Diminished sense of taste and smell

Causes of Sinus Infections

Sinus infections are typically caused by asthma, allergies, or the common cold. In some cases, however, bacterial infections can develop. If your doctor believes the infection is caused by bacteria, he or she may prescribe antibiotic medication.

When to Seek Help

Most sinus infections get better without the need for medical intervention. That said, because persistent sinusitis can lead to complications, it's important to see a professional if your sinus infection lasts longer than a week, or if your symptoms progressively get worse over a short period of time. You should also see a medical provider if your sinus infection is accompanied by a fever above 101°F.

How Are Sinus Infections Treated?

Sinus infections are typically treated based on the underlying cause and severity of the infection. Treatment aims to relieve symptoms, reduce inflammation, and promote healing. Here are some approaches that medical professionals commonly take to treat sinus infections:

  • Oral or nasal decongestants
  • Antibiotics (for bacterial infections)
  • Steroids
  • Nasal irrigation
  • Warm compresses
  • Steam inhalation

Turn to the Medical Professionals at PhysicianOne Urgent Care

If you're unsure whether you have a cold vs. a sinus infection, don't worry—we've got your back. At PhysicianOne Urgent Care, our experienced team is here to provide high-quality healthcare when you need it. Our urgent care centers are open 365 days per year with extended hours to accommodate your busy schedule, and you can walk in or utilize our online booking tool to reserve your spot in line. We also offer an integrated 24/7 telehealth service that allows you to connect with a local provider remotely through secure video conferencing. We accept most major insurance plans and offer affordable self-pay rates for those who are uninsured or prefer to pay out of pocket.

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