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.

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Is it an Allergy, Cold or Sinus Infection?

If you have allergies, you probably expect to sneeze when the pollen levels jump. (Or if you are allergic to cats, when you visit a friend who has cats.) In addition to sneezing, allergies often cause your eyes to itch. Your nose gets runny and stuffed up. Depending on what you're allergic to, allergies can last weeks.

If you're sneezing, coughing and have a sore throat, you're likely to decide it's a cold. Colds also come with a runny and stuffed-up nose. They usually last three to 14 days.

Other symptoms may point to sinusitis, which means your sinuses are inflamed.

What is a sinus infection?
Nasal passages are spaces within the bones around the nose. A sinus infection is when the nasal passages get red and swollen. Usually this is caused by a virus and comes after a cold. A sinus infection can also be caused by allergies or pollution. Less commonly, 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.

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

Sinus infections that last up to four weeks are called acute. When they last more than four weeks and come back more than four times a year, they are called chronic sinus infections.

If you think you are getting lengthy, severe or frequent sinus infections, be sure to discuss your concerns with your doctor. Chronic sinus infections can be caused by nasal polyps or tumors, allergies or respiratory tract infections, among other things. People with asthma and allergies, immune deficiency disorders or cystic fibrosis may be at higher risk of chronic sinus infections. People who have prolonged symptoms or bacterial sinusitis may need antibiotics.

Treatment of sinus infections
If you have an acute viral sinus infection, it will almost certainly go away on its own. In the meantime, you can take pain relievers for the headache and tenderness in your face. Decongestants can make it easier to breathe by shrinking the membranes in the nose. Just remember: it's important to read and follow the package directions.

Antibiotics will not work unless your sinus infection is caused by bacteria. Antibiotics may be called for when symptoms are severe, persistent or if the person is frail, fragile (either young or old) or has a compromised immune system. Talk to your doctor if you have any questions.

What if my child has a sinus infection?
Children can get sinus infections, too. Call your child's doctor right away if your child is under the age of 3 months and has a fever, no matter what the other symptoms. And it's a good idea to talk with your child's doctor about other symptoms in this age group, even without fever.

Older children and adults should see a health care provider when they have:

  • Fever of 100.4 or higher
  • Symptoms lasting more than 10 days
  • Multiple episodes of sinus infection in a year
  • Symptoms that don't go away with over-the-counter medicines (please see special note below about use of OTCs in children and infants).

Special considerations for infants and children
Ask your child's doctor how and when to use over-the-counter medicines. Expert opinions vary about the ages for which these products can be used safely. If possible, have this conversation before your child gets sick. Then you'll be prepared. Talk about these basic safety rules:

  • For children younger than 2 years: Do not give over-the-counter cough and cold medicines. There is a risk of life-threatening side effects for this age group. In fact, many package labels say not to use the medicine for children younger than age 4.
  • For safety's sake, do not give these medicines to any child without checking with the doctor first.
  • Some cough and cold medicines contain fever-reducers. Don't combine them with other fever-reducing drugs, such as acetaminophen. This can cause an overdose.
  • Always read and follow package directions to be sure the medicine is appropriate for your child.
By Emily Gurnon, Contributing Writer
Created on 04/24/2002
Updated on 01/03/2013
  • National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Sinusitis.
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Sinus infection (sinusitis).
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Common cold and runny nose.
Copyright © OptumHealth.
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