About all

Cold allergy or sinus: Is It a Sinus Infection, a Cold, or Allergies?


Is It a Sinus Infection, a Cold, or Allergies?

A Cold

  • What it feels like: You can expect a stuffy nose, but also some runny, discolored mucus, Goldsobel explains. You may also experience a sore throat, cough, sneezing, headache, or fatigue. Another sign is a rising temperature: Colds often trigger a fever, he says, but sometimes those fevers are so mild that people think they have allergies instead.
  • What triggers it: A virus.
  • How long it lasts: People usually fend off the cold virus (without treatment) within seven to 10 days, Baroody says. But if your symptoms have lingered past that window of time, you might have sinusitis. If you suspect you have a sinus infection, you should talk to your doctor.

An Allergic Reaction

  • What it feels like: You may experience some nasal congestion with allergies, but it usually accompanies a runny nose (clear, watery discharge), sneezing, and itchy nose and eyes. Allergies never cause a fever, Goldsobel notes.
  • What triggers it: Allergens cause an allergic reaction. Common indoor allergens include mold, dust, and animal dander, while outdoor triggers include pollen and ragweed.
  • How long it lasts: If you have seasonal allergies, you may struggle with allergy symptoms throughout the spring and fall, Dr. Baroody says. If you’re allergic to indoor allergens, you may experience symptoms year-round.

How to Treat Congestion

Because sinus infections, colds, and allergies share some similar symptoms, including congestion, medications like nasal sprays, oral antihistamines, and eye drops can help minimize your discomfort.

If allergies are to blame, do your best to avoid your known triggers and steer clear of any other potential irritants, such as smoke or air pollution. Long-term treatments like immunotherapy (allergy shots) can help desensitize you to allergens and improve symptoms over time.

When Colds and Allergies Cause Sinus Infections

Even if your sinus congestion is being caused by allergies or a cold, it doesn’t mean you won’t develop a sinus infection later on.

In fact, when people have colds or allergies, the lining of the nose will swell up, which prevents mucus from draining properly — and that can then lead to sinusitis, says Goldsobel. People with allergies and asthma may be more vulnerable to sinusitis, though it’s not proven, Baroody says.

If you are at higher risk for sinus infections, you can take steps to prevent them. Don’t let allergy symptoms spiral out of control. And, Baroody says, be on the lookout “for the symptoms of sinus infections, and treat them promptly.”

Is It Sinusitis or Allergies?

You’ve had a stuffy nose for what feels like ages. It’s gone on for more than just a few days, so you know it’s not a cold. But which is it: sinusitis or allergies?

They have similar symptoms, so it’s easy to confuse them. But there are key differences in the things that trigger them and the kind of treatment you get.

What Kicks It Off

With both sinusitis and allergies, your nose and sinuses get stuffed up, but it happens for different reasons.

If you have allergies, the passages of your nose and sinuses swell because they’re trying to flush out “allergens.” That’s just a technical word for anything you’re allergic to, like pollen, mold, dust mites, and pet dander.

Sinusitis usually develops because of allergies or a cold. Sometimes, but not often, it’s from bacteria that cause an infection.

When you have allergies or a cold, your nose and sinuses get inflamed. That blocks mucus from draining, which can cause an infection — not to mention pain and pressure.

If you have allergies, you’re more likely to have sinus problems. That’s because the inside of your nose and sinuses often swell up when you breathe in triggers.

What It Feels Like

The symptoms of allergies and sinusitis overlap a lot. Both can give you a stuffy nose. If it’s allergies, you may also have:

If it’s sinusitis, besides a stuffy nose, you may have:

  • Thick, colored mucus
  • Painful, swollen feeling around your forehead, eyes, and cheeks
  • Headache or pain in your teeth
  • Post-nasal drip (mucus that moves from the back of your nose into your throat)
  • Bad breath
  • Cough and sore throat
  • Fatigue
  • Light fever

See your doctor to figure out what’s going on, because it’s tricky to know for sure.

When It Comes and When It Goes

If you have allergies, you’ll start feeling symptoms soon after you come into contact with the stuff you’re allergic to. Your symptoms keep up as long as you’re still surrounded by those triggers.

Allergies can happen any time of year. They may be “seasonal,” which means you get them only in the spring or fall. Or they may be year-round. For instance, you might be allergic to pets or mold, which can be a problem no matter the season.


Sinusitis usually happens after you’ve had a cold or allergies. But certain symptoms will keep going, even after your cold goes away. You’ll probably have a stuffy nose and cough for more than a week or two.

You may hear your doctor talk about two kinds of sinusitis: “acute” and “chronic.” There’s a simple way to tell them apart. If your symptoms last less than 4 weeks, it’s acute. If they go on for 3 months or longer, you have chronic sinusitis.

What Eases Symptoms

If you have allergies, the first thing you turn to may be decongestants or antihistamines. They’re the most common treatments, and they ease a stuffy or runny nose, sneezing, and itching. Your doctor may also suggest corticosteroids, meds that reduce inflammation.

If you have seasonal or year-round allergies, you may need a long-term solution. Your doctor might suggest you start your allergy medicine before the season begins. Or they may recommend allergy shots. For around 3 to 5 years, they’ll give you regular injections of a small amount of whatever kicks off your allergic reaction. It’s a bit like getting a vaccine. Your body develops an “immunity” and will have less and less of a reaction to your allergy trigger.


For sinusitis, antihistamines may help. You can also try nasal decongestant sprays, but you should use them for only 3-4 days. After that, you could get what’s called the “rebound” effect, which means your symptoms start to get worse rather than better in between dosing so you’ll feel the need to use more and more of the decongestant nasal spray..

Another option are nasal sprays that have corticosteroids. You can use these as long as you need them. It may take several weeks before you get the full benefit.

You can also check out natural solutions for your symptoms. Try a humidifier, salt-water rinse, or hot pack.

If your sinusitis is caused by bacteria, your doctor may put you on a round of antibiotics. You may take them anywhere from 3-28 days.


Many doctors think antibiotics are overused. It’s best not to take them unless your symptoms last longer than 7-10 days.

What would you like to learn about next?

The Difference Between Allergies, a Cold, and a Sinus Infection

The Common Cold

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimate that 22 million school days are lost each year due to the common cold. And nearly one billion colds affect the U.S. population as a whole. More than 200 viral strains can bring about a cold, the most prevalent being the rhinovirus, known to cause roughly 50% of all common colds.
Most often, people catch a cold from direct physical contact with someone else infected with the virus. They may also rub something containing germs like a phone, a fork, or coins and then touch their mouth, nose, or eyes. Viral bacteria released into the air by a cough or sneeze can also trigger a cold by breathing them in through the airways.

“Typically a cold will come on fairly quickly, it will peak in one to three days, and resolve in about five to seven days,” says Dr. Tran. “A cold’s symptoms are characterized by a lot of nasal congestion, thick clear or discolored drainage, and maybe a fever. But patients are usually better in five to seven days without antibiotic therapy.”

Other symptoms of the common cold include:

  • A sore throat
  • Watery, sensitive eyes
  • Sneezing
  • Coughing
  • Mild headaches

Sinus Infection

Sinus infections, or sinusitis, are responsible for many visits to an ear, nose, and throat doctor’s office and impact over 30 million people every year.

The sinuses are air-filled cavities in the skull lined with moist mucous membranes like the inner lining of the mouth. The sinuses secrete mucus continuously. Sinus inflammation can arise from a virus or bacteria. During a sinus infection, mucus production spins out of control, thickens, and can clog the nose and sinuses, causing congestion and pressure.

Acute bacterial sinusitis, which usually lasts less than one month is characterized by severe symptoms including:

  • Nasal congestion
  • Facial pressure
  • Nasal discharge with a different smell
  • Fever
  • Dental pain
  • Fatigue

According to Dr. Tran, the key difference between a sinus infection and the common cold is the duration and quality of the symptoms. “When it comes to differentiating a cold from a bacterial sinus infection that might need antibiotics, it’s really about the duration,” says Dr. Tran.  “A sinus infection is characterized by symptoms that last more than 10 days, or if you have symptoms that initially improve but then worsen again within the first 7 days (‘double-worsening’). This normally indicates the presence of a bacterial infection that would benefit from antibiotic treatment.


Allergies are a widespread ailment that affects about 50 million children and adults in the United States and are the fifth leading cause of disease. Florida recently unseated Texas for the no. 1 highest allergy count by state in the U.S.

The most common allergens include:

  • Pollen and plants
  • Certain medications
  • Animal dander
  • Dust mites
  • Mold
  • Insect bites
  • Certain foods (eggs, dairy products, peanuts, and shellfish)

Allergies come about when your immune system sounds the alarm and attacks innocent allergens, something that usually is harmless, such as plant pollen, dust mites, molds, insect stings or food,  that it should not. With an allergen reacts with your body, your system discharges antibodies warning that a threat needs to be neutralized. Histamines and other chemicals are sent out to deal with the situation, leading to an unpleasant allergic reaction.

“Allergies have a very common symptom profile, with symptoms of sneezing, clear runny nose, watery /itchy eyes and scratchy throat” says Dr. Tran. “Allergies usually have a well-known trigger — if you’ve been outdoors, around cats or other allergenic triggers. Unlike an infection, you don’t have a fever, discolored mucus, or a wet cough. ”

Symptoms can vary depending on the type of allergy and its severity and can range from mild to annoying, to serious and life-threatening.

Allergenic symptoms for nasal allergies can include:

  • Sneezing
  • Itchy, watery eyes
  • Runny nose
  • Feeling unwell or sick

Why do allergies occur?  Many scientists believe that allergies developed because we are now too clean, known as the “clean hygiene theory.”  Part of the immune system that used to fight against parasites is now directed towards other innocent substances, or allergens, as exposure to parasites has significantly decreased with improved food sanitation and protective skin barriers.

Some inhalant or airborne allergies can last year-round depending if you’re allergic to dust mites or mold, but sometimes they can be more seasonal with trees, pollen, and grasses. Unfortunately, Florida has a climate with high humidity that allows for the proliferation of molds and dust mites, which can cause nasal congestion and have a significant impact on the overall sense of well being and sleep.

Treatment options are broad and include avoidance precautions, medications and immunotherapy to desensitize the immune system against the offending allergen.  Immunotherapy is the only treatment that addresses the issue at the root cause, by trying to prevent the immune system from mounting a response to the allergenic trigger.  Traditionally, desensitization therapy is given in the form of shots over the course of 3-5 years, but now there is an option for drops that can be administered daily by the patient under the tongue. Sublingual immunotherapy can save the patient time, is considered equally effective compared to allergy shots and has a very strong safety profile. At the ear, nose throat and plastic surgery associates, both allergy shots and drops are offered and can be tailored to each individual patient.

Is It Sinusitis or Allergic Rhinitis?

Nasal congestion and sinus pressure can make you miserable for weeks. You have to find the source of your symptoms to unstuff your nose.

by Featured Provider Ashley Taliaferro on Tuesday, April 7, 2020

You’re feeling the pressure — in your nose, in your head. Yet nothing can release it. And all you want is for your face to feel normal again.

It must just be a really bad cold. But you’ve gone through all your go-to cold treatments with no luck.

A stuffy nose and headache are signs of many illnesses, including the common cold. It can even be difficult for your doctor to make a diagnosis. But when you’re past the point for a cold to have run its course, your symptoms are likely due to two similar conditions — sinusitis and allergic rhinitis — with very different causes.

Sinusitis — is that like a sinus infection?

One and the same. Sinus infections typically stem from a cold you just can’t shake. When the cold virus lingers long enough, the infection spreads into your sinus cavities. But sinusitis can also come from a bacterial infection. Either way, the symptoms are the same:

  • Sinus headache, pressure and pain
  • Stuffy and runny nose
  • Postnasal discharge, usually yellow or green
  • Bad breath
  • Sore throat
  • Cough
  • Tiredness
  • Light fever

“Some of the biggest things that distinguish a sinus infection that’s caused by bacteria, are the facial pressure and pain,” says Ashley Taliaferro, DO, Family Medicine physician at The Iowa Clinic in Altoona. “You often have a sinus headache with it, and feel pain in your forehead, cheeks — even your teeth.”

Diagnose Your Stuffy Nose

Problems persisting past a couple of weeks need the expertise of your primary care provider

Make an Appointment