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What is the Difference Between a Sinus Infection and a Cold?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 17, 2024
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It can sometimes be difficult to tell the difference between a sinus infection and a cold, but there are some keys signs associated with each, which can aid in diagnosing one or the other. The first thing that people should understand is that colds are the result of viruses, whereas a sinus infection may emerge as a complication of a virus, or of other conditions like allergies, and they may be caused by bacteria or by other agents that result in sinus swelling. Some people suffer from chronic sinus infections or sinusitis and are prone to getting this condition even if they don’t have colds first. Frequent sinusitis cases, more than three to four a year, suggest that person should see a doctor, preferably an ear nose throat specialist, to determine if there are methods for reducing number of yearly sinus infections.

Common symptoms of a cold can include the following:

  • Runny or congested nose
  • Slight fever, especially in kids,
  • Sore throat
  • Fatigue or a feeling of being run down or tired
  • Postnasal drip
  • Sneezing

Most colds hit their peak about seven to ten days after the cold has begun, and symptoms usually disappear about two weeks after a cold starts. The symptoms, which might start either during or after a cold, are very different. Chief among these is pain: pain in the head, pain in the neck, pain in the forehead or around the nose, and sometimes jaw or teeth pain. People may especially feel that there is pressure around the eyes, nose and forehead, and feeling these areas can be very uncomfortable.

Another indication of an actual infection is color of nasal mucus. In most colds mucus is clear, white or slightly yellow. With a sinus infection, mucus can be darker yellow or green. It may also have a peculiar smell, and sense of smell may be very much affected.

One of the ways some people tell they have a sinus infection is that they start with a cold that doesn’t seem to get any better after the two week period, but a cold doesn’t always cause infections, as mentioned. Allergies, flus, and even sometimes unknown reasons can result in sinusitis. What’s even more difficult is that colds and sinus infections share some symptoms in common, including postnasal drip, congested nose, fatigue and slight fever. Thus for people trying to differentiate between the two, the biggest indicators are color of mucus, duration of nasal congestion and sinus pain or pressure.

A sinus infection may be treated differently than a cold. People may require antibiotics if the infection is of bacterial origin. Many sufferers of sinusitis find relief in doing twice-daily nasal washes, though this can help during a cold too. Another commonly prescribed treatment is inhaled steroids for the nose, which can help reduce swelling of the sinuses. This can be used as a year round preventative too, to reduce the number of infections.

Undergoing minor surgery that widens the sinus passages helps some people with chronic sinusitis. This isn’t always required, but when people suffer from these infections frequently it may make a great difference. Speak with a doctor or a good ear nose and throat (ENT) specialist about whether surgery may be appropriate, given frequency and duration of sinusitis episodes.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGeek contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By anon312830 — On Jan 09, 2013

My son gets a sinus infection about once a month lately. The last time, he was sick for three weeks after doing antibiotics and steroid spray. Anyway, I was reading some home remedies and found that apple cider vinegar was good for sinus infections (especially if taken at the beginning of symptoms). I put a tablespoon of it in his juice twice a day for two days. On the third day when I was suctioning out his nose (because he's not big enough to blow effectively), he had blood clots and all kinds of stuff coming out. The next day his nose was completely clear.

I can't promise it was only because of the apple cider vinegar, but I believe it did have a lot to do with it. Hope this helps.

By GiraffeEars — On Nov 18, 2010

@ Comparables- I have a good treatment for you to use while suffering from a sinus cold. You could try steam treating your sinuses. Boil a pot of water, and pour the water into a mixing bowl. Add a drop or two of oil of oregano, cover your head with a towel, and hang your head over the bowl. Oil of Oregano is an excellent anti-microbial, effective at killing harmful bacteria. Just inhale the steam through your nose for five to ten minutes and let your sinuses drip right into the bowl. This will help rid your sinuses of the infection in no time.

By ValleyFiah — On Nov 18, 2010

@ Comparables- I find that one of the best ways to treat sinus infections, or rather prevent sinus infections, is to create the most allergen free indoor air as possible. Indoor air quality is essential to good sinus health. It also sounds like you live in a southwestern city, which are notorious for dust and particulate pollution. One way to tell is if your allergies seem to clear after a heavy rain.

I would recommend that you purchase the best HVAC filters on the market. I would also recommend you clean the vents at least once a year, change the filters once a month, detail your car once a year, and vacuum your vehicles carpets regularly. Reducing allergens to a manageable level in the areas you frequent the most will definitely help you manage your allergies.

By Comparables — On Nov 18, 2010

I have the worst sinuses. I have post-nasal drip off and on throughout the year. I get a severe sinus infection about once a year, and i get mild sinus colds about every three months. I have only been experiencing this severity of sinus problems since I moved out to the desert, and I can't understand what the cause is.

I use a neti pot, but I can only use it for so long until my nose begins to dry out and bleed. I have to take antibiotics once a year when I come down with severe infections, and my quarterly colds last almost a month. Does anyone have any ideas about what I can do? I am not allergic to animals, but I am allergic to pollen. I am not sure what else causes my sinus problems, but I notice it is worse in some places than others. When I go out of town to visit my parent’s house it is much easier to deal with than when I remain in the city.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGeek contributor, Tricia...
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