Is It a Cold or a Sinus Infection? Symptoms & Treatments

Watery eyes, stuffy nose, sneezing: The duration of these symptoms may be a clue to the cause of nasal congestion. Is it a cold or sinusitis?


If it’s a cold virus, you may end up next to a box of tissues for a few days. Most colds go away on their own in 10 days or less.

Cold symptoms

The common cold causes a nasty mix of symptoms that can really tire you out. They may include:

Cold treatment

Because the common cold is a virus, antibiotics won’t help. But over-the-counter medications can help you feel better.

“The remedies you choose should target specific symptoms, so something for a headache, something for a stuffy nose, something for a fever,” says Kamelia Davtyan, MD, professor of medicine at UCLA.

Davtyan also emphasizes abundant drinking and rest. The latter, she admits, is often difficult.

“Getting enough rest can be a problem because people don’t want to miss work and they have so much to do,” she says. You may also find it difficult to sleep at night because you cannot breathe through your nose.

Davtyan recommends washing the sinuses. Neti pot helps loosen mucus and flush the sinuses with a mixture of distilled water and salt.

“People who water when they have a cold usually feel better,” says Davtyan.

Sinus infection

When your nasal passages become infected, it is a sinus infection. And they are harder to get rid of viruses, bacteria, or even allergies can lead to sinus infections.

A cold usually doesn’t cause a sinus infection, Davtyan says, but it does create a breeding ground for them.

“You often touch your nose when you are sick, and each time you bring more bacteria into your sinuses,” she says. “Because your sinuses can’t drain, bacteria stay there and grow.”

Symptoms of a sinus infection

Look for the following symptoms:

Treatment of a sinus infection

If you think you have a sinus infection, you may need to see your doctor.

“Most of these acute infections go away on their own or after a simple course of antibiotics,” says otolaryngologist Greg Davis, who practices at the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle.

Davis recommends sinus lavage for sinus infections. This may help relieve your symptoms while you wait for the antibiotics to take their toll. Steroids, decongestants, and over-the-counter mucus thinners can also relieve discomfort, he says.

See an ear, nose and throat specialist if a sinus infection doesn’t go away after one or two courses of antibiotics, Davis says.

Some people get sinusitis again and again. Davis says the only known risk factors are allergies and smoking (another reason to quit!). Rarely, an acute infection can become chronic if not treated successfully.

If you have chronic infections and antibiotics and other treatments don’t help, you may need sinus surgery, Davis says.

Your doctor will widen small or inflamed and swollen openings in your sinuses, allowing them to drain and making it easier for you to breathe.

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