How To Tell When Your Cold Has Become a Sinus Infection

November 20, 2018
woman with sinus infection blowing her nose

As the temperatures drop here in Connecticut, New York and Massachusetts, the common cold is on the rise. The symptoms are no mystery: congestion and runny nose, cough, headache and perhaps a sore throat and mild fever. But sometimes that cold (or even allergies) can lead to a less common condition that shares many of the same symptoms: a sinus infection.
While treatment with antibiotics will do nothing to improve a cold, it could be necessary to clear up a sinus infection. That’s why it’s important to know how to tell the difference so you can seek care when it’s needed.
Here’s what you need to know…

What is a sinus infection?

The sinuses (also called nasal passages) are hollow cavities in the bones of the skull. They are located on either side of the nose, between the eyes, and in the lower center part of the forehead.
Normally, the sinuses are empty. But a cold virus or allergies can cause the tissue inside the sinuses to swell, causing that “stuffed up” feeling. This is called sinusitis. Sinusitis can cause excess mucous and fluid to become trapped within the sinuses. That mucous can become a breeding ground for germs and when it does, a sinus infection can occur.

Is a sinus infection contagious?

Sinus infections are not contagious, but the colds that can lead to a sinus infection are – so wash your hands frequently and cover your mouth with the inside of your elbow to prevent the spread of cold germs.

Cold symptoms vs. sinus infection symptoms

Colds and sinus infections share many of the same symptoms, including a stuffy and runny nose, sinus pressure, headache and feeling tired. But there are a few symptoms to watch for that may mean you’re suffering from a sinus infection and not just a cold. They are:

  • Severe pressure and pain in your upper jaw or cheekbones
  • A high or persistent fever
  • Thick yellow or green mucus draining from your nose or down the back of your throat (which is called postnasal drip)
  • Bad breath
  • Decreased sense of smell

The length of time you’ve been suffering with symptoms can also be an important clue. Cold symptoms will generally begin to improve in three to five days. If you find you’re still suffering after 10 days or longer, it’s likely that you’ve developed a sinus infection. If your symptoms improve and then suddenly get worse again, that’s another clue. This pattern suggests that what began as a cold or viral sinusitis has now developed into a bacterial sinus infection.

Sinus infection treatment and sinus pressure relief

If you’re suffering from a short bout of sinusitis – which is inflammation of the sinuses from a cold or allergies, but not necessarily infection – there are several things you can do at home to ease your sinus pressure symptoms. Use over-the-counter decongestants and saline nose spray to open up the nasal passages. Pain relievers like ibuprofen or acetaminophen can provide relief from sinus pain as well.
However, if your symptoms last more than a few days you should see a doctor for evaluation and treatment. If your cold or sinusitis has developed into a bacterial sinus infection, you may need antibiotics to treat it. Both adults and children can receive care for sinus infections at any of our PhysicianOne Urgent Care centers in Connecticut, Massachusetts or New York, 365 days per year. You can even check in online now at the center nearest you for a convenient appointment with minimal time in the waiting room.

Related Resources
The Best Humidifiers for Dry Skin and Bad Sinuses
Sinus Issues Linked to Depression, Lost Productivity in Workers
What is the Common Cold?
4 Ways to Kill a Cold Before It Starts
Is It a Cold or the Flu?
Cold Remedies for Kids

This was the fastest, easiest, and best doctor's visit. The provider was extremely kind and helpful. I explained my symptoms, the provider asked a few followup questions, and then she issued a script. I will absolutely be using this service again and would recommend to anyone.
  • 5.0
  • 4.6