It’s that time of year when many people experience cold and sinus infections. Telling them apart determines how each illness is treated.
Each year, about 31 million people experience sinus infections, usually caused by bacteria growing in the sinuses – the bony cavities found behind the nose, eyes, brows, and cheekbones. Typically, a cold or allergy attack causes mucous membranes in the sinuses to swell and block the tiny openings into the sinuses, which interferes with their ability to drain. The trapped mucus allows bacteria to breed, causing a more troublesome bacterial sinus infection.
Both viral and bacterial infections can cause common sinus symptoms, including nasal obstruction, discolored nasal discharge, facial pain and pressure, and a reduced sense of smell. Contrary to popular belief, the color of your nasal discharge does not differentiate a virus from a bacterial infection. Both of these infections can cause your nasal mucus to become more discolored giving a greenish or yellow color to your nasal mucus.
While the symptoms may be similar, there are some differences between the two conditions that can help you determine which one you have. The main difference between the symptoms of a cold and sinus infection is how long they linger. Cold sufferers typically have nasal congestion and a runny nose for three to seven days. After that, most people begin to feel better. A sinus infection will hang around for seven days or more. It can also be seen with a “double worsening,” where the patient worsens with the start of the viral cold, starts to feel better as the viral symptoms start to resolve, and then worsens again as the bacterial infection starts to take hold.
Treating a Sinus Infection
Within the first week of your sinus infection symptoms, you should seek over-the-counter or home remedies. Decongestants are a common treatment; however, over-the-counter decongestants, particularly decongestants that come in nasal sprays, should not be taken for more than three days.
Other treatments that can be done at home to help ease the pain of a sinus infection include:
- Breathing warm, moist air, such as taking steam showers.
- Applying warm compresses.
- Saline nasal rinses or sprays, or using a Neti Pot.
- Drinking plenty of water.
If your symptoms linger longer than seven days, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics as treatment as your viral infection has more likely led to a bacterial infection at that point.
Preventing a Sinus Infection
Though there is no proven method to completely prevent sinus infections, there are ways to reduce your chances of contracting one.
Treating cold or allergy symptoms promptly can help to prevent bacterial infections from developing. Additionally, keeping your nose moist with saline sprays or washes and maintaining a balanced indoor environment that is not too dry or too humid, can also help prevent an infection.
Smoke from cigarettes, pipes, and cigars can further irritate and cause inflammation of the sinus membranes, so avoiding smoke can help reduce the risk of a sinus infection.
Vacuuming and other ways of removing dust and allergens can help, especially if you are allergic. Also, hand washing and limiting how often you touch your face may help to curb sinus infections by preventing the spread of common germs and viruses you may encounter in your environment.
Nathan A. Deckard, MD
Director, Rhinology, ENT Allergy, and Skull-Base Surgery
Cooper University Health Care