Cold v Sinus Infection

Provided by: Scott Kramer, MD

Your nose starts to feel congested. Your throat gets that scratchy feeling. Perhaps you develop a sinus headache, or your mucus turns green. Does this sound familiar? Often people wonder if these symptoms mean they have a common cold or if a sinus infection is developing. Many folks probably don’t know there is a difference. This article is meant to help clarify some questions you may have about the common cold versus bacterial sinusitis.
Viral upper respiratory infections (URI’s), better known as “colds,” are the most common infectious diseases on earth. These illnesses are caused by viruses with particles so small they can’t be seen with even the most powerful light microscope. They are passed from person-to-person through “droplets” generated by coughing, sneezing, or wiping the nose or eyes. Viral particles can survive on hard surfaces such as door handles or railings for several hours. Symptoms of viral URI’s include nasal congestion, sore throat, feeling tired or generally ill. Once a viral URI starts, the goal of treatment is to relieve symptoms by using anti-inflammatory medication such as ibuprofen, nasal sprays, or salt water gargles. Cold symptoms usually last 5-7 days, and nothing has been proven to shorten their duration, so preventing an infection altogether is the best line of defense. Avoiding touching your face, nose, or eyes and washing/sanitizing your hands frequently are the best means of prevention.
Bacterial sinusitis, better known as “sinus infections,” can feel similar to colds because they also can cause congestion, facial pressure or pain, and sore throat. But there are some key differences. First, symptoms on one side of your face or nose only suggest a bacterial infection. Dental pain in your upper teeth is more consistent with sinusitis, and low-grade fever can also occur. Often patients can start with a viral URI, get better after several days, and then get worse again because of a “secondary” bacterial infection. Treatment can either consist of symptomatic relief (see above paragraph) and close observation or with oral antibiotics.
Importantly, the color of your nasal mucus (green, yellow, etc.) does NOT help differentiate between a cold or sinus infection. As always, you should talk to your primary care doctor if you have questions about your specific care and what the best treatment options are for you as an individual.

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