11
March
2013

Is it a sinus infection or a head cold?

Find out if you are suffering from a sinus infection or just the common cold

We’ve all been there: nasal congestion, sore throat, mucus discharge, the perennial hallmarks of cold season. But is it a common cold, or is it a sinus infection? Making this distinction is important, since the prognosis, treatment options, and causal factors differ between the two. In this article, we will show you how to discern whether you have a common cold or a sinus infection, and steps to take in each case. 

We’ve all been there: nasal congestion, sore throat, mucus discharge, the perennial hallmarks of cold season. But is it a common cold, or is it a sinus infection? Making this distinction is important, since the prognosis, treatment options, and causal factors differ between the two. In this article, we will show you how to discern whether you have a common cold or a sinus infection, and steps to take in each case.

Causes

The common cold is produced by a viral infection often caused by a rhinovirus or influenza virus. These viruses are transmitted between individuals through airborne droplets (produced by coughing and sneezing) or through contaminated objects such as tabletops and kitchenware. They quickly multiply once established in the body, and the symptoms associated with the common cold are the result of the body’s immune system reacting to the foreign viruses.

In contrast, sinus infections are generally produced by bacteria such as Streptococcus pneumoniae and Haemophilus influenzae, and less frequently by fungal or viral infections. These infections are opportunistic, and are generally preceded by allergies or a viral infection such as a head cold. The pathogen colonizes the tissues lining the paranasal sinuses, facilitated by mucus build-up from the prior condition.

Symptoms

The difficulty in distinguishing between a common cold and a sinus infection lies in the fact that the two diseases share most of their typical symptoms. These include:

  • Runny nose
  • Post-nasal drip
  • Sore throat and cough
  • Headache and facial pain
  • Nasal congestion
  • General malaise and fatigue
  • Fever

However, a sinus infection is characterized by pronounced and localized pain in the sinuses, which can radiate up behind the eyes, back to the ears, and down to the jaw.

Onset/duration

The key to determine whether you have a sinus infection or a cold lies in the type of onset and duration of the disease. Colds begin within 24 hours of exposure, and start with fatigue and chills, followed in a couple of days by cough and nasal congestion. Symptoms peak within 2-4 days, and generally disappear within 10 days, although the cough may linger.

Sinus infections are usually precipitated by a head cold or allergies. When excess mucus build-up persists in the paranasal sinuses, the tissues are easily colonized by pathogens that can produce an acute or chronic infection. Acute infections last 10 days to 1 month, and progress with focal pain around the sinuses with a thick, green nasal discharge. Chronic cases last for more than one month and are usually multi-factorial, caused by a combination of infections, allergies, and/or morphological abnormalities such as a deviated septum.

Treatment options

Both sinus infections and colds are usually self-limiting, and are effectively managed through symptomatic treatment applied at home. If fever is severe (greater than 102 degrees F) or persistent (longer than 5 days), if vision becomes hindered, or if symptoms last for longer than one month, consult your doctor.

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Categories: Head, Cold, Sinuses

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