What is the difference between Sinusitis and the Common Cold?
|Daniel Ganc, MD
Board Certified Otolaryngologist with a special interest in Sinus and Allergy
Associate Professor at Florida Atlantic University College of Medicine
About the author: Daniel Ganc, MD is a Board-Certified Otolaryngologist (ear, nose, and throat specialist). He is an Assistant Professor at the Charles E. Schmidt College of Medicine at Florida Atlantic University (FAU). He has published articles in major medical books and magazines and has lectured at national physician conferences on various topics. Dr. Ganc specializes in the medical and surgical treatment of ear, nose, throat, sinus, and allergy conditions for both adult and pediatric patients.
It can be hard to differentiate between a common cold and a sinus infection. Sinusitis is often preceded by a common colds. This progression is more common in certain people. Allergies and narrow sinus drainage are two common factors associated with sinus infections.
How can you tell if you have sinusitis rather than just a cold?
Common colds are viral infections that usually last for 5 to 10 days. They are most severe between days 3 or 5, and then symptoms improve and disappear. Nasal discharge usually starts clear and watery, and after a day or two, the nasal discharge may become thicker with white, yellow, or green color. After several days, the discharge becomes clear again and dries.
Sinusitis, or more properly termed rhinosinusitis, is an inflammation of the mucosal lining of the nose and sinuses. The infection can begin with inflammation from a viral cold, which can lead to narrowing of the drainage passages of the sinuses. This narrowing can also be related to swelling from an allergy flare up. Symptoms like nasal discharge, headaches, and facial pressure last more than 10 days without improvement or get worse after a week of a common cold. The headaches in sinusitis in general are behind or around the eyes, and they get worse when bending over.
Common colds are treated only with over-the-counter medications based on the symptoms they cause. These medications may also be helpful for the symptoms of bacterial sinusitis, but in these cases antibiotics are indicated as well, so see your doctor.
Decongestants for difficulty breathing through the nose are available in oral forms, notably pseudoephedrine (e.g. Sudafed), and topical sprays, i.e. oxymetazoline (Afrin) and phenylephrine (Neo-Synephrine). Note that the decongestant sprays can be used for a maximum of 3 days.
For those with thick mucus or pus from either a common cold or bacterial sinusitis, sinus rinses and neti pots are useful to irrigate the nose.
Ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil) and acetaminophen (Tylenol) work well for pain. Thick mucus in the nose and chest can be treated with guaifenesin (e.g. Robitussin, Mucinex), and dextromethorphan (Delsym) is helpful for cough. Many times these medications are combined into one “cold and sinus” pill, so read the labels to be sure it has the ingredients that will help you.