Bacterial and viral acute sinus infections typically display similar symptoms. The duration of the infection can help determine if it is viral or bacterial.

Many viruses, such as the ones that cause the common cold, link to sinus infections such as sinusitis. Viral infections do not typically last for more than a week.

If bacteria causes sinusitis, its symptoms can last more than a week. The symptoms may come and go and worsen after a period of improvement.

This article reviews the differences and similarities between acute bacterial and viral sinus infections, their symptoms, and when a person should contact a doctor.

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Viruses are small parasitic microorganisms. To survive, viruses require living tissue or cells in which they can grow.

When a virus invades the cells of a person’s body, it starts to grow and multiply, causing an infection. Most cases of sinusitis link to viral infections.

Bacteria can also cause sinusitis. They are tiny microorganisms composed of one single cell. Bacteria can survive in almost any environment, including on the skin and inside the body.

Not every bacteria can cause infections, but some of them, called pathogenic bacteria, can cause several infections, including sinusitis.

Learn more about bacterial and viral infections.

The symptoms of a bacterial acute sinus infection and viral sinusitis typically share similar symptoms, such as a runny or stuffy nose and facial pain.

The main difference between these types of sinusitis, which also helps doctors determine what type of infection a person has, is how long a person experiences symptoms.

In most cases, viral sinusitis typically resolves within 3–5 days without any specific treatment. However, it may sometimes last longer and even become chronic, lasting more than 12 weeks.

A person with bacterial sinus infection typically experiences sinusitis that persists for more than 10 days, with their symptoms worsening after 5 days from the beginning of the illness.

Learn more about sinus infections.

The symptoms of both viral and bacterial acute sinusitis are similar and may include:

People do not usually contact a doctor if they have mild symptoms of sinusitis or if the symptoms are getting better. However, a person should contact a doctor if they experience one of the following:

  • the symptoms have not started improving after 10 days from the onset of the illness
  • recurring episodes of sinus infections
  • the symptoms are severe or getting worse

Doctors can recommend the most appropriate treatment based on the symptoms and health conditions of each person.

If an individual experiences recurring sinus infections, doctors may refer them to an ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialist for further assessment.

They can determine whether there is an underlying condition causing the frequent episodes of sinusitis.

Learn more about ENT conditions.

Sinus infections can occur when fluid builds up in the sinuses, allowing germs to grow. When viruses or bacteria enter the sinuses, they can start growing and multiply, causing an infection.

While sinusitis is not transmissible, the viruses and bacteria that can cause it are. Viral sinus infections are the most common type of sinusitis, accounting for about 90% of infection cases.

The treatment for sinusitis depends on which type of infection a person has. If an individual has a viral infection, the treatment typically focuses on relieving their symptoms while the infection goes away. This may include:

  • resting
  • drinking lots of fluids
  • taking over-the-counter (OTC) decongestants to ease stuffy or runny nose
  • OTC pain medications to relieve fever and aches
  • medications to ease cough and sore throat
  • saline nasal rinses and spray

When people have a bacterial sinus infection, doctors typically prescribe antibiotics. They can prevent bacteria from growing and multiplying and help the body fight the infection.

Antibiotics do not have any effect against viral infections.

Similar to viral sinusitis, doctors may recommend taking OTC medications to ease the symptoms while the infection resolves.

Individuals must take the whole course of antibiotics as the doctor prescribed, even if they feel better. Skipping doses of antibiotics may allow the bacterial infection to return.

People can take several steps to reduce the risk of coming into contact with viruses and bacteria and prevent sinusitis. This may include:

Viral and bacterial acute sinus infections typically present similar symptoms.

Viral infections typically resolve within a week and do not usually need any treatment apart from OTC medications to ease the symptoms. Bacterial sinusitis can last for more than 10 days, and it may require the use of antibiotics.

If a person has sinusitis and their symptoms last for more than 10 days, are severe, or are getting worse, they should contact a doctor for advice about the appropriate treatment needed to recover from the illness.