Sinus infection vs the common cold: what's the difference?

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?

Signs of a sinus infection

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:

1. Pain in different parts of your face

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.

2. Nasal congestion

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. 

3. Nasal discharge

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.

4. Coughing

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.

5. Headache

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. 

6. Bad breath

The discharge from infected sinuses can have an unpleasant smell and cause bad breath.

Sinusitis symptoms in children

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 difference between sinusitis and a common cold

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.

The difference between sinusitis and COVID-19

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.

Treatment for sinusitis

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.

We hope you've found this article useful, however, it cannot be a substitute for a consultation with a specialist

If you're concerned about symptoms you're experiencing or require further information on the subject, talk to a GP or see an expert consultant at your local Spire hospital.

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Cahoot Care Marketing

Niched in the care sector, Cahoot Care Marketing offers a full range of marketing services for care businesses including: SEO, social media, websites and video marketing, specialising in copywriting and content marketing.

Over the last five years Cahoot Care Marketing has built an experienced team of writers and editors, with broad and deep expertise on a range of care topics. They provide a responsive, efficient and comprehensive service, ensuring content is on brand and in line with relevant medical guidelines.

Their writers and editors include care sector workers, healthcare copywriting specialists and NHS trainers, who thoroughly research all topics using reputable sources including the NHS, NICE, relevant Royal Colleges and medical associations.

The Spire Content Hub project was managed by:

Lux Fatimathas, Editor and Project Manager

Lux has a BSc(Hons) in Neuroscience from UCL, a PhD in Cellular and Molecular Biology from the UCL Institute of Ophthalmology and experience as a postdoctoral researcher in developmental biology. She has a clear and extensive understanding of the biological and medical sciences. Having worked in scientific publishing for BioMed Central and as a writer for the UK’s Medical Research Council and the National University of Singapore, she is able to clearly communicate complex concepts.

Catriona Shaw, Lead Editor

Catriona has an English degree from the University of Southampton and more than 12 years’ experience copy editing across a range of complex topics. She works with a diverse team of writers to create clear and compelling copy to educate and inform.

Alfie Jones, Director — Cahoot Care Marketing

Alfie has a creative writing degree from UCF and initially worked as a carer before supporting his family’s care training business with copywriting and general marketing. He has worked in content marketing and the care sector for over 10 years and overseen a diverse range of care content projects, building a strong team of specialist writers and marketing creatives after founding Cahoot in 2016.