Understanding the difference between sinusitis and a cold isn’t exactly straightforward. The primary reason behind this confusion is that the symptoms of a cold and sinusitis (and even allergies) are very similar.

As outlined in our cold and sinus quiz, no online resource will ever be able to tell you as much about your condition as a doctor can. Nevertheless, a few key elements we can cover here may help you differentiate between the two.

Learn what these key elements are and become a pro at being able to tell the difference between sinusitis and a cold.

Identifying the root cause

One way to tell the difference between sinusitis, a cold, and allergies is by identifying what’s causing your symptoms — bacteria, a virus, or allergens. (We’ve decided to include allergies here because allergies can sometimes lead to a sinus infection.)

Virus: If your sinuses are acting up due to a virus, then you likely have a cold, known formally as viral sinusitis. The most common cold virus is the rhinovirus.

Allergens: Allergens such as dust, dander, pollen, and mold may cause cold-like and sinusitis-like symptoms (commonly referred to as allergies or allergic rhinitis).These symptoms are your immune system’s overreaction to allergens in the air

Bacteria: Sinus buildup due to a cold or allergies can create a breeding ground for bacteria, which in turn can cause bacterial sinusitis. Note that bacterial sinusitis, sinusitis, and a sinus infection are simply different terms for the same condition. In other words, the answer to the question, “What’s the difference between sinusitis and a sinus infection?” is … nothing.

To recap:

  • Viral sinusitis, known as the common cold, is caused primarily by the rhinovirus and should go away within one week.  
  • Allergic rhinitis indicates that you have allergies and are exposing yourself to allergens.
  • Bacterial sinusitis is known simply as sinusitis or a sinus infection and is caused by bacteria buildup in the sinuses.

Your doctor will be able to help you identify the root of your sinus symptoms and provide you with an answer to the question, “Is it sinusitis or a cold?

Measuring the duration

How can one differentiate between sinusitis and a cold? Time.

A cold typically lasts 5 to 10 days — maximum — with symptoms peaking anywhere between day 3 and 5. A sinus infection, however, can last much longer than the common cold (and without a reduction in symptoms). In other words, if your “cold” lasts more than a week, it may not be cold at all, and you’ll need to get evaluated by an ENT.

Allergic rhinitis’s duration is dependent on your ability to get away from the allergen that is causing you trouble. Rhinitis will last until your exposure to the allergen ceases or until you pursue allergy treatment.

Letting bacterial sinusitis go without sinus infection treatment can cause further health complications, including sinus problems and snoring and even sinusitis and sleep apnea.

Determining if you’re contagious

Have you caught whatever illness your coworker, child, or spouse had? If so, chances are that you have a cold and not a sinus infection; the cold virus is contagious, but the bacteria that cause a sinus infection are not.

While a sinus infection isn’t contagious, it’s still important to remember that catching a cold is one of the top sinus infection causes. Without proper treatment, it’s possible for cold symptoms to turn into sinus infection symptoms.

Need for treatment

Another difference between a cold and sinus infection is how they are treated. Catching several colds in a winter is unfortunate but shouldn’t require much treatment. Multiple sinus infections in one season, however, can be debilitating, and it may require extensive treatment.

If you have tried OTC remedies to get rid of your chronic sinusitis to no avail, know that there are different types of sinus surgery available to you. These procedures can produce dramatic results within a very short amount of time, especially the minimally-invasive, in-office procedure, balloon sinuplasty.

Dr. Napoleon G. Bequer at Sinus Solutions of South Florida has over 35 years of experience diagnosing and treating sinus issues such as allergies, colds, and sinusitis. He performs balloon sinuplasty in Tampa and is also a leading practitioner of West Palm Beach balloon sinuplasty. If you’re ready for relief from constant colds or chronic sinusitis, request a consultation by calling us at 561 – 790-7744 or simply send us a message online.

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