A cold can give a person a stuffed and runny nose and make them feel run down. These symptoms could also suggest a sinus infection – so which is it?

The symptoms often overlap, so it can be difficult to recognize each condition. Rhinitis is the term for a cold, while sinusitis is a sinus infection.

More than 100 different viruses cause a cold, a type of viral infection of the respiratory system. Colds spread when someone who has the virus coughs or sneezes droplets containing the virus into the air. They can also transmit when a person with a cold sneezes on or touches a surface, leaving the virus behind to infect a new host.

The air-filled sacs behind the nose are called the sinuses. Colds can lead to sinus infections when the sinuses swell up. Air, mucus, and bacteria can become trapped in the swollen sinuses and cause further infection.

The main difference between a cold and a sinus infection is the duration of symptoms. Most people recover from a cold in 5 to 10 days. Sinusitis can remain in the body for 4 weeks or for over 3 months in people with a chronic case of the condition.

Fast facts on cold and sinusitis symptoms

  • Sinusitis is an infection of the spaces behind the nose.
  • Sinusitis symptoms can last for 4 weeks or longer, whereas a cold will generally resolve far more quickly.
  • Medicinal or surgical treatment may be required to cure sinusitis, but a cold cannot be treated.

Sinus infection symptoms vs. cold symptoms

Man blows nose with red eyes
Sinusitis can cause a runny nose and may need medical intervention.

Cold symptoms include:

  • a stuffed and runny nose
  • sneezing
  • a cough
  • low fever
  • mild body aches

These symptoms usually peak in the first 3 to 5 days and then improve gradually. Most people do not have symptoms past 10 days to 2 weeks.

Symptoms of a sinus infection may be more severe and can last for 4 weeks or longer. They include:

  • stuffed nose
  • thick yellow or green nasal discharge
  • pain in the face – especially around the eyes, nose, cheeks, and forehead
  • a headache behind the eyes
  • a cough
  • pain in the upper jaw and teeth
  • fever
  • fatigue
  • bad breath

Sinusitis may clear up without treatment but is more likely to need medical intervention than a cold.

Sinus infection symptoms in children

Child blows nose
In children, sinusitis can cause symptoms that are very similar to a cold.

As with adults, sinus infection symptoms in children are easy to confuse with those of a cold.

Young children are most likely to have cold-like symptoms, including a stuffed nose with yellow-green discharge and a slight fever that persists beyond 10 to 14 days. They may also be more irritable than usual.

In addition to congestion, older children and teens can have:

  • a cough that does not resolve
  • bad breath
  • tooth pain
  • ear pain
  • pain in the face
  • a headache
  • swelling around the eyes

If a child is still sick after 14 days, or if the temperature rises further or continues for more than 3 days despite treatment with acetaminophen, they should see a pediatrician.

A child might have chronic sinusitis if symptoms continue for longer than months. Children with chronic sinusitis should visit a pediatric ear, nose, and throat (ENT) doctor to find out about other treatment options.

Sinus infection treatments

Often, a sinus infection will get better without treatment. The following treatments can help people feel better while their body recovers.

Decongestants

This medication shrinks swollen blood vessels in the nose to ease breathing. They come in the form of a pill or nasal spray.

Nasal sprays should not be used for more than 3 days in a row because repeated use can cause congestion to come back. A doctor should monitor decongestant use in children.

These drugs can raise blood pressure. People with high blood pressure should speak to a doctor before taking a decongestant, as well as those with heart disease or diabetes.

Pain relief

Some medications bring down fever and relieve headaches and other uncomfortable effects of sinusitis, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol), aspirin, and ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil).

Avoid giving aspirin products to infants, children, and teenagers, as they increase the risk of a rare but serious condition called Reye syndrome.

Steroid or corticosteroid sprays

These sprays shrink swelling in the nasal passages. Some steroid sprays are available over the counter. Others require a prescription from a doctor.

In some people, steroid sprays can slightly improve congestion but are not effective for everyone. Steroid sprays can also cause side effects, such as headaches and nosebleeds.

Antibiotics

These medications treat sinusitis that has been caused by bacteria. However, . A doctor can prescribe a course of antibiotics lasting between 3 and 28 days, depending on the drug.

Always complete a course of antibiotics. Stopping antibiotics too soon can make bacteria resistant to the effects of an antibiotic in the future and may interfere with recovery.

If sinusitis symptoms remain after a few months, doctors may use surgery to open up the sinuses or remove any growths that are causing a blockage.

Natural and home remedies

Neti pot for sinus
A saline solution can help to clean clogged nasal passages.

These natural and home remedies might also help ease symptoms:

  • Rest: Staying home and resting until you feel better will help your body fight the infection.
  • Fluids: Water, clear broth, and other fluids can help flush mucus from the system and prevent dehydration.
  • Nasal saline: A nasal spray made from saltwater solution is a more natural approach to clearing out clogged nasal passages. It will help remove the mucus, relieving congestion. Saline solution can sometimes be applied using a neti pot. Click here for a fantastic range of neti pots, available online.
  • Humidifier: Turning on a cold steam humidifier at night prevents the sinuses from drying out. A wide range is available to purchase online – click here for access.

What to avoid

To avoid getting sick, stay away from anyone who appears to have an infection. Wash the hands frequently, and avoid touching the eyes, nose, and mouth.

When to call a doctor

Whatever the cause, people should call a doctor if any of these symptoms develop:

  • a persistent cough
  • fever over 103º Fahrenheit
  • rash
  • shortness of breath, wheezing
  • vomiting

Seek medical attention after a couple of weeks of sinus infection symptoms that do not improve or are getting worse.