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Colds, Allergies and Sinusitis — How to Tell the Difference

SinusitisCold weather is a prime time for stuffy noses, sore throats and watery, itchy eyes. But if your symptoms last more than a week, or if they seem to turn off and on based on your surroundings, you may be battling allergies or sinusitis. Proper diagnosis and treatment can lead to quicker recovery and less misery.

Colds are caused by a virus where allergies are caused by exposure to allergens. Colds and allergies can both lead to sinusitis which occurs when the sinuses become swollen and blocks mucous from draining, leading to painful pressure and infection.

People with allergies or asthma are more likely to develop sinusitis because their nasal and sinus tissue can become swollen when they breathe in triggers like dust, pollen or smoke.

Most cases of sinusitis resolve without antibiotics in about two weeks. Decongestants, nasal sprays, hot packs, humidifiers or salt water rinses may ease symptoms.

For people with allergies, there are steps you can take to reduce your risk of sinusitis. Your allergist / immunologist may recommend long-term treatments such as allergy shots, medication to control inflammation and avoidance of allergy triggers.

Similar to allergies, but may also include sore throat, fever and body aches

Runny or stuffy nose; sneezing; wheezing; watery or itchy eyes

Swollen, painful feeling around forehead, eyes and cheeks; stuffy nose with thick, colored mucous; bad tasting postnasal drip; bad breath; sore throat; cough; tiredness and occasional light fever

Warning Time
Develops over several days

Begins shortly after exposure to an allergen

Stuffy nose and cough lasting longer than one or two weeks

Should clear up within several days

Lasts as long as exposure

Acute sinusitis refers to symptoms that last less than four weeks. Chronic sinusitis is when symptoms last three months or longer.

Did you know?
•    The majority of sinus infections are caused by a virus, such as a cold. Less than 2% are bacterial.
•    Antibiotics don’t help viral infections.
•    People with allergies are more likely to suffer sinus problems.

To the Point
Knowing whether your symptoms are caused by a cold, allergies or sinusitis is the first step toward
choosing the proper treatment.

The AAAAI's Find an Allergist / Immunologist service is a trusted resource to help you find a specialist close to home.