Colds Vs. Sinus Infection: What’s the Difference?

Head congestion that makes you feel tired and miserable? Check. Red and runny nose? Check. Persistent headache? Check. It looks like you’re suffering from a cold. Or are you? These symptoms are common when you have a cold, but they also suggest a sinus infection. So which is it?

The Difference Between a Cold and a Sinus Infection

A cold is also called rhinitis. It’s an infection that results from a virus reaching your respiratory system. This includes your nose, mouth, throat, and lungs. With at least 200 viruses capable of causing a cold, it’s the most common viral infectious disease among humans.

When you have a cold, the virus can infect your sinuses—the group of air-filled sacs between your eyes and behind the nose. The virus infection causes your sinus membranes to get inflamed, resulting in what’s known as viral sinusitis. However, bacteria can also infect your sinuses, resulting in bacterial sinusitis or, in more casual terms, a sinus infection.

When you get a sinus infection, inflamed sinus membranes block the cilia from sweeping mucus down your throat, resulting in mucus being trapped in the sinuses. This is how you experience congestion.

Of course, you can’t really tell what’s going on under your skin, so detecting the difference can be difficult. Looking at the symptoms to differentiate the two can also prove futile because they share many of the same symptoms, including:

  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Headache
  • Congestion
  • Cough
  • Postnasal drip
  • Low fever
  • Fatigue

You may be able to tell the difference by looking at the duration of these symptoms. Typically, symptoms of a cold start to subside within seven to 10 days, as the body’s immune system gets rid of the infection.

However, sinus infections last much longer. If you’ve been experiencing the symptoms for more than 10 days and there’s no improvement, chances are you have a sinus infection. Left untreated, this can last for four weeks. In more extreme cases, you may have a sinus infection for over three months, which means you have chronic sinusitis.

When to See a Doctor

Cold symptoms come and go, or at least improve, within a week. Since a cold is caused by a virus, taking antibiotics won’t do anything. Fortunately, your immune system can fight cold viruses on its own. As long as you make sure you get enough rest and fluids in your body, the virus will run its course in you’ll be good as new.

However, if the infection worsens or simply doesn’t go away, a trip to the doctor may be necessary. They can prescribe antibiotics, steroids, or decongestants, which can help thin the mucus in your sinuses and ease your discomfort.

If you develop chronic sinusitis, it’s important to visit a sinus specialist in Denver. You may need to undergo balloon sinuplasty to drain the nasal mucus and help you breathe easier—and Ear, Nose, and Throat (ENT) doctors can perform this.

Peak ENT and Voice Center provides comprehensive treatment for patients in Colorado suffering from ear, nose, throat, and voice problems. Our board-certified physicians use the latest and safest techniques and equipment for minimal discomfort and faster recovery for our patients.

If you need treatment for chronic sinusitis, contact us today.

Scroll to Top
Call Us Now