Cold? Allergies? Or Sinus Infection?

Your nose is stuffy. You feel run-down. And you’ve felt this way for several days.

But you’re not sure if it’s a cold, allergies or a sinus infection. That’s understandable. The symptoms of those conditions can mimic each other, making it hard for you to know what’s making you feel so crummy.Woman with sinus pain

There are some key differences that may help you tell these conditions apart:

  • How long has it gone on? Colds and viruses generally last five to seven days. If your symptoms continue after about a week, it could be a sinus infection or allergies.
  • How congested are you? A cold can be annoying and make you feel bad. But it typically doesn’t cause extreme congestion or the severe headaches that can come with it.
  • What color is your snot? Yes, it’s gross. But the color of your mucus can tell you a lot about your health. If you’re blowing out or coughing up thick, yellowish snot, it’s probably not a cold or allergies. The most likely culprit is a sinus infection.
  • What are your other symptoms? With allergies, you may also sneeze and have itchy, watery eyes. If you have a rattle in your chest when you breathe, that could indicate bronchitis.


Treatment options 

If you’ve had symptoms for less than two weeks, try these tips for relief:

  • Take it easy. Don’t try to tough it out when you’re sick. Your body needs rest to heal.
  • Drink lots of water. This will help you avoid dehydration, which can make you feel even worse. Staying hydrated also helps to loosen congestion. Stay away from coffee, caffeinated soda and alcohol, though, as those can worsen your symptoms.
  • Try saline nasal drops or sprays. Saline drops and sprays contain no medication, so they don’t cause any side effects.
  • Be careful with decongestant sprays. If saline drops or sprays don’t help with your congestion, you could try a decongestant spray like Afrin. Don’t use it more than two times a day for three days, though. Decongestant sprays can cause what’s called “rebound congestion”—leaving you even more congested than before. In cases of long-term use, the swelling inside your nose can become permanent.
  • Keep the air moist. If the air in your home is dry, try using a humidifier to add moisture. That may also help to loosen your congestion.
  • Consider an over-the-counter cold or allergy medication. A decongestant (for a cold) or antihistamine (for an allergy) may help with some of your symptoms. Make sure you talk to your pharmacist about any medication interactions, and read the label to learn about any potential side effects (such as drowsiness).


When to see a doctor

If you’ve had cold-like symptoms for more than two weeks, it’s probably time to see a doctor. If you have colds, allergies and/or sinus infections often, it may be a good idea to see an ear, nose and throat specialist.

To request an appointment with Iowa ENT Center, use our appointment request form below. Or call us at 515-223-4368.

Request an appointment