If you have a cold that isn’t getting better, it might be a sign of a sinus infection, known as sinusitis. Sinusitis and the common cold share many symptoms so how do you know when your symptoms are telling you it’s more than just a cold?
Your sinuses are small spaces behind your cheekbones, nose and in your forehead above your eyes. They produce a thin liquid called mucus that protects the body from infections by trapping and moving germs away and out of the body. Extra mucus is common when you have a cold or allergies, but if the buildup of germs and mucus becomes too thick it may lead to a bacterial or viral infection.
Here are six signs of a sinus infection to look out for:
You may experience aching or pain in and around your sinuses ie in your forehead, cheeks, and behind the nose. This may feel more severe than when you have a cold. Pain in your upper jaw and teeth is also common with sinusitis.
Infected sinuses can become inflamed and swollen, which feels like a blocked nose. Nasal congestion can also affect your sense of smell and taste, and alter the sound of your voice.
A sinus infection is often accompanied by thick discharge from your nose that can be green or yellow. The discharge comes from your sinus and drains down into your nose, so you’ll need to blow your nose to clear it.
Sometimes the discharge produced by infected sinuses goes down into your throat instead of coming out of your nose. This can irritate your throat and cause you to cough, particularly when you’re lying down, as well as causing a sore throat and hoarse voice.
As well as the sinuses themselves causing pain, it is common for sinusitis to cause headaches. The inflamed, swollen sinuses cause pressure that leads to a headache behind your eyes. Headaches are often worse in the morning because fluid has been collecting overnight.
The discharge from infected sinuses can have an unpleasant smell and cause bad breath.
Children show many of the same symptoms of sinusitis as adults. Young children may have a slight fever along with a stuffy nose and yellow or green mucus. They will probably be more irritable, as they don’t feel well but may not be able to articulate it. If symptoms last more than 10 days or their temperature continues to rise then it’s best to get them checked by a doctor.
The biggest difference between the common cold and a sinus infection is the length of time it lasts. For most people, recovery from a cold will take five to 10 days, but sinusitis can last for up to four weeks, or even several months if it becomes chronic (long-term) sinusitis.
Although a cold and sinusitis share many symptoms, there are some signs that can help you to differentiate between the two. A cold is often characterised by sneezing, a low fever, and mild body aches. These symptoms are less common with sinusitis which more often causes a higher temperature and pain or aches of the head, ears, jaw and face, without sneezing.
A cold can lead to sinusitis, so if you start out with cold symptoms but they don’t go away or you notice signs of a more serious infection, see your GP.
There are some symptoms of sinusitis that overlap with COVID-19 so it’s important to be aware of the difference. Nasal congestion, a runny nose, a loss of smell and taste and a sore throat could be caused by sinusitis, a common cold or COVID-19. However, you’re more likely to have a dry, continuous cough and shortness of breath with COVID-19.
With more variants of COVID-19 giving rise to a broader range of symptoms, it is important to get tested if you display any of the symptoms of COVID-19 or have been in contact with someone who has it.
While sinusitis usually lasts longer than a common cold, it can still go away by itself. You can use general cold medications such as decongestants and pain relief to ease your symptoms. A steroid nasal spray can also help and is available over the counter from your pharmacist.
Natural home remedies can be helpful in relieving sinusitis symptoms. Inhaling steam through your nose can provide temporary relief — you can enhance its effects by adding eucalyptus oil to the steaming water. A warm compress can also help to relieve sinus headaches.
If you have a prolonged sinus infection your doctor may prescribe antibiotics or they may refer you for a rhinoscopy. This is where a doctor inserts a tube with a tiny camera into your nose and sinus cavity so they can see what your sinuses look like.
If you have chronic sinusitis or recurring sinus infections you may be referred to an ENT (ear, nose and throat) doctor. Sometimes, sinus surgery is needed to improve the drainage from your sinuses. This is normally done as a day case under general anaesthetic, so you’ll be asleep for the procedure. It’s performed with an endoscope, a tube that will be inserted into your nose which has a light and camera at the end. Your surgeon will then be able to see if any blockages are contributing to your chronic or recurring sinusitis and remove them.
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