Sinus Infection vs Cold - What's the difference between them?
Medically reviewed by Carmen Fookes, BPharm. Last updated on July 26, 2019.
The main difference between a sinus infection and a cold is that a sinus infection is an infection of the sinuses (which are the hollow, air-filled cavities within our skull that surround our nose) and a cold is a viral infection of the upper respiratory system (which is essentially our nose and throat).
A sinus infection may follow a cold. Symptoms of a sinus infection and a cold tend to overlap; however, cold symptoms generally resolve within 5 to 10 days whereas sinus infections can persist beyond this time.
Symptoms of a sinus infection are more likely to include facial pain or pressure that may feel like a toothache. A sinus infection can also cause a sour taste to linger in your mouth and cause bad breath. Sneezing and a sore throat are more likely to occur with a cold.
While green or yellow mucus may occur with a bacterial sinus infection, viral colds can also produce thick, discolored mucus, so colored mucus is not necessarily a definite sign of a bacterial infection.
Typically, symptoms of a sinus infection persist long after other common symptoms of a cold have resolved. In some circumstances, symptoms of a cold may resolve, only to return again a few days later. This may be a sign of sinus infection.
What is a sinus infection and is it the same as sinusitis?
A sinus infection is an infection of the sinuses caused by a virus, bacteria, or rarely fungi.
Technically, sinusitis is an inflammation of the delicate membranes that line the sinuses, which may be caused by an allergy, a virus, bacteria, or rarely fungi. When membranes are inflamed they swell up and become red. Sinus infections always have sinusitis as a symptom.
What are the symptoms of a sinus infection?
Our sinuses are a group of air-filled cavities within our skull. Microbes or allergens can cause inflammation of the membranes that line the sinuses, which causes swelling and blocks the drainage of mucus.
Symptoms of sinus infections can vary depending on the cause. Bacterial sinus infections are usually caused by the trapping of bacteria in the sinuses following a cold or an allergy and tend to have the most severe symptoms. Symptoms of a sinus infection include:
- Pressure or pain between or around the eyes
- Nasal congestion and a discolored discharge
- A reduced sense of smell
- A cough that lasts more than 10 days without improving
- A fever that persists
- A severe headache that is felt behind or around the eyes which worsens on bending over
- Pain in the teeth of the upper jaw that may feel like a toothache
- Persistent bad breath along with cold symptoms
Most sinus infections resolve by themselves Some bacterial sinus infections may need to be treated with antibiotics. Some people, usually those whose immune systems are compromised, can develop chronic sinusitis.
What are the symptoms of a cold?
There are over 200 different viruses capable of causing a cold, although rhinoviruses are the most common culprit.
Symptoms of a cold can range from mild to reasonably severe and vary significantly between individuals. Symptoms of a cold typically include:
- A runny nose and sneezing. The nasal discharge typically starts clear and watery then becomes thicker and white, yellow, or green by day two. Within a few days, it becomes clear again then dries
- Nasal congestion
- A headache
- A mild fever that usually is only present for the first day or two
- A cough that may worsen at night
- A sore throat
- Watery or red eyes.
Colds generally only last only 5 to 10 days. Symptoms usually peak in severity on day three or five then improve over the next few days before disappearing.
How do you treat a sinus infection or a cold?
Initial treatment of a cold and a sinus infection is similar and includes:
- Pain relievers such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen
- Saline nasal sprays or rinses
- Nasal decongestants.
You should also make sure you eat a healthy diet with plenty of vegetables and fruits and drink plenty of water and other fluids.
Sometimes antibiotics may be needed for a bacterial sinus infection; however, many resolve on their own. See your doctor if your symptoms persist for more than two weeks or if they are particularly severe. Children may need to see a doctor earlier particularly if their symptoms include low appetite, high fever, compromised breathing, or extreme drowsiness.
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