The Difference Between Colds and Sinus Infections

The Difference Between Colds and Sinus Infections | Dr. Ali Ghahary

Symptoms of common colds and sinus infections can be very similar. For example, both may result in nasal congestion or runny nose, sinus pressure, headaches, fever, cough and fatigue. However, sinus infections also come with a few symptoms of their own, and there are some definitive ways that you can tell the difference between a sinus infection and common cold. Some of the most common tell-tale signs of a sinus infection include nasal discharge that is thick, as well as yellow or green in colour, postnasal drip (mucus that drains from your nose to the back of your throat), bad breath, and decreased sense of smell. You may also experience pain when applying direct pressure to the sinuses, as well as when you bend your head forward or lean over. These are all indicators of a sinus infection, and unlike a common cold which will typically get better after one or two weeks, a sinus infection will often last longer and require antibiotics.

In some cases, the distinction won’t be as easy and it can sometimes be difficult to tell a cold from a sinus infection. Because of this, physicians like Dr. Ghahary will sometimes wait before giving patients an antibiotic prescription and will instead like to get a definitive diagnosis by sending them for a sinus X-ray. An X-ray (or similar medical imaging test, such as a CT scan) will give a better, clearer picture as to what’s actually going on with the sinuses. In some cases, sinus problems can even be detected through dental X-rays. Once it is confirmed that you have a sinus infection, antibiotics will then be prescribed. It’s also not uncommon for doctors to prescribe patients with a corticosteroid nasal spray on top of antibiotics. These nasal sprays help to reduce swelling and inflammation of the nasal passages, as well as congestion and runny nose, and other common sinus problems such as nasal polyps and seasonal allergies. Certain over-the-counter medications, like acetaminophen and ibuprofen, can also help reduce pain and inflammation associated with sinus infections, as well as reduce fever.

Sinuses on a dental X-ray. | Dr. Ali Ghahary
Sinuses on a dental X-ray. | Dr. Ali Ghahary

There isn’t one main reason as to why some people get sinus infections and why others do not. However, some individuals may be prone to developing sinus infections if they have nasal cysts or polyps or allergies, as these can increase the risk of sinus infections in some people.

In individuals who do happen to have recurring, severe sinus infections or nasal polyps, then endoscopic sinus surgery will sometimes be recommended. This is a surgical procedure that is performed by an ear, nose and throat specialist (also known as an Otolaryngologist.) This procedure is performed in-hospital and you are put to sleep with general anesthesia. Once the patient is asleep, the surgeon will insert a tube that allows them to see inside the nasal passages and sinus cavity – much like an X-Ray or CT scan would, but a very different and real-time view. Endoscopic sinus surgery may include the removal of tissue and/or bone (for example, if you have a deviated septum, as this can also contribute to potential sinus problems) in order to create a wider opening so that the sinuses are able to drain more effectively. After the surgery is performed, you are sent to a recovery room and are typically able to go home after a few hours so long as the surgery was successful, there weren’t any complications, and you’re feeling well enough. Following the surgery, your nose may be covered with gauze and you may also have small plastic-like stents up your nose to keep the sinuses open as well as to prevent the formation of scar tissue.