A sinus infection is a complication of a viral cold. For this reason, their symptoms can overlap. The main difference between them is the duration of the symptoms. A person usually recovers quickly from a cold, whereas a sinus infection can last much longer.

Rhinitis is the term for the common cold. Sinusitis, or sinus infection, is inflammation in the space behind the nose. It is a complication that may result from a viral or bacterial infection.

More than 200 different viruses cause a cold, a type of viral infection of the respiratory system. More than 50% of colds occur from a type of rhinovirus.

Colds spread when someone who has the virus coughs or sneezes droplets containing the virus into the air. They can also transmit when a person with a cold sneezes on or touches a surface, leaving the virus behind to infect a new host.

The air-filled sacs behind the nose are called the sinuses. Colds can lead to sinus infections when the sinuses swell up. Air, mucus, and bacteria can become trapped in the swollen sinuses and cause further infection.

A sinus infection most often develops after a viral cold. In rarer cases, a person can also get bacterial sinusitis after a viral cold, which is known as a superimposed infection.

Most people recover from a cold in 5-7 days. Sinusitis can remain in the body for 4 weeks or for over 3 months in people with a chronic case of the condition.

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Cold symptoms typically include:

  • a stuffed and runny nose
  • sneezing
  • a cough
  • low fever
  • mild body aches

These symptoms usually peak in the first 3-4 days and then improve gradually. Most people do not have symptoms past 10 days to 3 weeks.

Symptoms of a sinus infection may be more severe and can last for 4 weeks or longer. They include:

  • stuffed nose
  • thick yellow or green nasal discharge
  • pain in the face – especially around the eyes, nose, cheeks, and forehead
  • a headache behind the eyes
  • a cough
  • pain in the upper jaw and teeth
  • fever
  • fatigue
  • bad breath

Sinusitis may clear up without treatment but is more likely to need medical intervention than a cold.

Sinus infection symptoms in children

As with adults, sinus infection symptoms in children are easy to confuse with those of a cold.

Young children are most likely to have cold-like symptoms, including a stuffed nose with yellow-green discharge and a slight fever that persists beyond 10 days. They may also be more irritable than usual.

In addition to congestion, older children and teens can have:

  • a cough that does not resolve
  • bad breath
  • tooth pain
  • ear pain
  • pain in the face
  • a headache
  • swelling around the eyes

If a child is still sick after 14 days, or if the temperature rises further or continues for more than 3 days despite treatment with acetaminophen, they should see a pediatrician.

A child might have chronic sinusitis if symptoms continue for longer than months. Children with chronic sinusitis should visit a pediatric ear, nose, and throat (ENT) doctor to find out about other treatment options.

Treatment for the common cold can include:

  • Over-the-counter pain medications: These include acetaminophen (Tylenol) or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen (Advil) to reduce fever or relieve associated headaches. A person should avoid giving aspirin products to infants, children, and teenagers, as these increase the risk of a rare but serious condition called Reye’s syndrome.
  • Decongestants: These help shrink swollen blood vessels in the nose to ease breathing. They come in the form of a pill or nasal spray. A person should not use these for longer than 3 days because repeated use can cause congestion to come back. A doctor should monitor decongestant use in children. They may also raise blood pressure, so a person with high blood pressure should first speak to their doctor.
  • Corticosteroid nasal sprays: These can help shrink swelling in the nasal passages. Some steroid sprays are available over the counter. Others require a prescription from a doctor. In some people, steroid sprays can slightly improve congestion but are not effective for everyone. Steroid sprays can also cause side effects, such as headaches and nosebleeds.

Natural and home remedies

These natural and home remedies might also help ease cold symptoms:

  • Rest: Staying home and resting until you feel better will help your body fight the infection.
  • Fluids: Water, clear broth, and other fluids can help flush mucus from the system and prevent dehydration.
  • Nasal saline: A nasal spray made from saltwater solution is a more natural approach to clearing out clogged nasal passages. It will help remove the mucus, relieving congestion. Saline solution can sometimes be applied using a neti pot.
  • Humidifier: Turning on a cold steam humidifier at night prevents the sinuses from drying out. A wide range is available to purchase online.

If a cold progresses to a sinus infection, the symptoms will often get better without treatment. However, a person can continue their preferred cold treatments to get relief while their body recovers.

In case of a bacterial infection, however, a person will need antibiotics. A doctor can prescribe a course of antibiotics lasting between a week and as long as 6 weeks, depending on the type of antibiotic and whether the sinusitis is acute or chronic.

A person should always complete a course of antibiotics. Stopping antibiotics too soon can make bacteria resistant to the effects of antibiotics in the future and may interfere with recovery.

If sinusitis symptoms remain after a few months, doctors may use surgery to open up the sinuses or remove any growths that are causing a blockage.

Viruses usually cause the common cold. In some cases, a viral cold can progress to a sinus infection, which is the inflammation of the nasal passages also known as sinusitis. Sinusitis can also have other causes, such as a bacterial infection or an allergy.

The treatment for sinusitis can be similar to that of a cold. However, if the cause is bacterial, a person will need antibiotics. Whatever the cause, people should call a doctor if they develop a fever over 102.2°F (39°C), a rash, a persistent cough, shortness of breath, or vomiting.

A parent or caregiver should call a doctor if an infant younger than three months has a fever of 100.4°F (38°C). A person should also see their doctor if their sinus infection does not improve in several weeks.