Is It a Cold or Sinus Infection? How To Tell.

Even though we’re in the middle of summer, here at Westchester Health we still see a fair amount of colds and sinus infections (sinusitis). Patients come in sneezing and coughing with watery eyes and a stuffy nose, and want to know: is it a cold or a sinus infection? Our answer: the type of symptoms and long they last give us clues as to whether it’s a virus (cold) or an infection.

If it’s a cold

If what you have is a “common cold,” most of the time it will get better on its own. Typically, you’ll have a runny nose for 2-3 days, followed by a stuffy nose for 2-3 days. After that, most people begin to feel better. However, that’s little comfort when you’re suffering from the following symptoms and feeling pretty lousy:

  • Sore throat


    David T. Ennis, MD

  • Cough
  • Headache
  • Stuffy nose
  • Mucus buildup
  • Sneezing
  • Fatigue
  • Swollen sinuses
  • Fever (usually low-grade in adults but higher in children)

3 best ways to treat a cold

  1. Because a cold is a virus, antibiotics won’t help. But over-the-counter medications may make you feel better. Choose ones that target your specific symptoms, i.e., headache, cough, congestion and/or fever.
  2. Rest is still the best remedy but for many people, that’s hard. They don’t want to miss work, plus they may have a hard time sleeping because they can’t breathe through their nose.
  3. Sinus irrigation. A neti pot filled with a mix of distilled water and salt will help thin the mucus and flush out the sinuses. Studies show that people who irrigate when they have a cold usually feel better and get over it quicker.

If it’s a sinus infection

When your nasal passages become infected, that’s not a cold, that’s a sinus infection, which is harder to get over. Viruses, bacteria or even allergies can lead to sinus infections which will hang around for 7 days or more. Sinus infections are sometimes accompanied by a low-grade fever, while colds typically are not. Also, colds generally produce clear mucus, while bacterial infections tend to produce greenish or yellow mucus.

Colds do not usually cause sinus infections but they do offer a breeding ground for them. You touch your nose a lot when you’re sick, and each time you do this, you bring more bacteria to the sinuses. Because your sinuses can’t drain, the bacteria stay there and grow. So yes, a cold can lead to a sinus infection.

Look for the following symptoms:

  • Sinus pressure behind the eyes and cheeks
  • A runny, stuffy nose that lasts more than a week
  • A headache that gets worse
  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Bad breath
  • Thick yellow or green mucus draining from your nose or down the back of your throat (postnasal drip)
  • Fatigue
  • Decreased sense of smell

3 best ways to treat a sinus infection

If you think you may have a sinus infection, see your doctor right away because you most likely need antibiotics, and the sooner you start, the sooner you’ll feel better.

Sinus irrigation is also recommended for sinus infections as well for colds. It can help ease your symptoms while you wait for the antibiotics to start working. Steroids, decongestants and over-the-counter mucus thinners can also ease your discomfort.

When to see a specialist

If your sinus infection does not go away after 1 or even 2 courses of antibiotics, you should see an ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist.

Some people get sinus infections over and over (especially people who smoke or have allergies and smoking. If these cases, a recurring infection can become chronic if not treated successfully and sinus surgery may be needed.

Wondering whether you’ve got a cold or sinus infection? Come see us.

If you’re feeling lousy and think you have either a cold or sinus infection, please call (914) 232-1919 to make an appointment with one of our Westchester Health Internal Medicine physicians. He/she will examine you, make a diagnosis and start treatment right away so you can soon start to feel better. Whenever, wherever you need us, we’re here for you.

By David T. Ennis, MD, an Internal Medicine specialist with Westchester Health, member of Westchester Health Physician Partners

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