Is It Just Sniffles or Something More Serious?

Caesar Djavaherian, MD, MS, FACEP
March 31, 2021
4 min

It’s that time of year where colds and sniffles are common. In fact, in the United States alone there are 1 billion cases of the common cold a year. However, if you can’t seem to beat it, you might have something more serious like a sinus infection on your hands. Read on to learn how to spot the difference. 

Can’t seem to beat that cold no matter how much rest and fluids you get? You might have something more serious going on like a sinus infection or allergies. Trust us, you’re not alone. Sinus infections, also called sinusitis, affect about 31 million people a year. 

What Exactly is a Sinus Infection? 

Your sinuses are air pockets located in your cheeks, behind and on the sides of the forehead, and behind your nose. They’re lined with mucus to keep them moist and also to trap germs and other particles. 

Sinus infections occur when viruses, and sometimes bacteria, get trapped in your sinus passages, causing them to swell and block the mucus, which prevents it from flowing down the throat and into the stomach. Fluid builds up and creates symptoms such as pain and pressure in the face and cold-like symptoms such as a stuffed nose, congestion, and a sore throat which are no fun.

People with narrow or deformed nasal passages are at higher risk of developing sinus infections as well as those with allergies and a weakened immune system. 

Is it a Cold or a Sinus Infection?

Many common cold symptoms, such as a cough, runny nose, sore throat, and chest congestion, are the same as a sinus infection, making it hard to distinguish between the two. If your runny, stuffed nose is accompanied by facial pain and pressure, bad breath, and greenish mucus, chances are it’s a sinus infection. 

Other sinus infection symptoms include headaches, pain in teeth, fatigue, and fever. Colds symptoms usually start to improve after about three to five days, whereas a sinus infection can stick around for up to 10 days or more.   

How to Treat a Sinus Infection

In most cases, sinus infections clear up on their own. If you don’t start to feel better within a week, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics. If bacteria cause the infection, antibiotics should clear it up. However, if it’s a viral infection, it won’t, which is why most doctors don’t prescribe antibiotics right away.

Until you start to feel better, you can relieve symptoms with the following over-the-counter and home remedies:

  • Over-the-counter pain relievers, decongestants, and antihistamines
  • Warm compresses on your nose and face
  • Steam showers
  • Nasal steroid sprays
  • Nasal irrigation with a Neti pot
  • Humidifier or vaporizer
  • Eating spicy foods

If you experience chronic or recurring sinus infections and the cause of your illness involves the structure of your nasal passages, surgery may be an option to correct it or to remove nasal polyps.

When to Seek Medical Attention

As mentioned above, most sinus infections, fortunately, clear up on their own. However, if your symptoms last longer than 10 days, get worse before starting to improve, or are accompanied by a fever for more than four days, you should consult a doctor. 

In rare cases, a sinus infection can be severe or life-threatening. Symptoms that demand immediate medical attention include:

  • Swelling or redness around the eye
  • A severe headache
  • Neck stiffness
  • Change in eyesight

As with a cold, you should get plenty of rest and fluids if you have a sinus infection. If you have allergies, try to steer clear of your allergy triggers.

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Caesar Djavaherian, MD, MS, FACEP

As Carbon Health’s Chief Innovation Officer, Caesar Djavaherian, MD, MS, FACEP, guides clinical innovation through product development, service expansion, and partnerships with transformative companies working to improve the healthcare ecosystem. He is an emergency medicine physician, a former high school teacher, and a reformed academic researcher. Caesar co-founded Direct Urgent Care to deliver technology-enabled urgent care throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. He has practiced at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, the University Hospital of Columbia, and Weill Cornell Medicine. In his spare time, Caesar advises healthcare startups, cheers on the Warriors, tries various HIIT workouts, and daydreams about what the future of health will look like.