How to Tell If You Have a Sinus Infection

You’ve been up coughing, sneezing for the past few nights, and you’re all stuffed up. It sounds a lot like a cold. You’re almost sure of it. However, as time drags on, you begin to wonder whether or not it might be turning into something else. It could be a sinus infection.

These two ailments have a lot in common. However, there are ways to tell them apart from one another. Identifying the right ailment can help your doctor provide the best possible treatment and ensure the fastest recovery.

To help determine if you have a sinus infection, it's best to eliminate other possibilities first. Let’s start with whether or not you have a cold.

Woman with a cold

How to Tell If You Have a Cold

A cold is the common name for an illness that is caused by several different types of viruses. Common symptoms of a cold include:

● Stuffy nose

● Runny nose

● Feeling worn-out or tired

● Constant headache

● Post-nasal drip (the release of fluid into the back of your throat from your nose)

You might also experience a mild fever or a cough if you have a cold. When it comes to cold symptoms, they typically build up to a peak, then disappear slowly over time. There are many medications to help ease cold symptoms. However, there is currently no cure.

Some options to help alleviate cold symptoms include decongestants, which help to reduce drainage, and pain relievers, which can provide relief for fevers and headaches. You might find that over the counter cough medicines help as well.

If you have a cold, it will usually last a few days or a week at the most. However, there are instances when a cold could cause your sinuses to swell up. Your sinuses are hollow spots in your head that connect to one another.

This type of swelling can stop the flow of mucus, which eventually leads to a sinus infection. If you are experiencing additional pain around your eyes, plus a thick green or yellow mucus, then it’s probably time to consult your doctor.

What Is a Sinus Infection?

A sinus infection is the swelling or inflammation of your sinuses. Typically, they’re filled with air. However, when they are blocked up with fluid, bacteria begin to grow, which leads to infection. The result is a sinus infection, also referred to as sinusitis.

Man with a sinus infection

How to Tell If You Have a Sinus Infection

If you have a sinus infection, you may experience the following symptoms:

● Pain or pressure around your eyes or in your face

● Stuffed up nose

● Yellow, thick, or unpleasant smelling fluid in your nose

● Headache around the forehead

● Congestion

● Cough or fever

● Cold symptoms that get worse or won’t go away

Of course, many of these symptoms are also signs of a cold. However, if they hang around for more than a week, you might have an infection in your sinuses.

How Are Sinus Infections Diagnosed and Treated?

Before your sinus infection is diagnosed, your doctor will perform an exam and gather your medical history. They may order a CT scan to get a good look at your sinuses.

Your primary care physician might prescribe some medication to help get rid of the infection. Usually, a doctor will recommend you use an antibiotic if you’ve experienced your symptoms for longer than 10 days.

You may also discover that antihistamines or decongestants help to alleviate the pain by reducing the swelling in your nasal passages and sinuses. Additionally, hot showers and steam can help loosen the mucus in your system, hopefully letting your sinuses drain naturally.

A doctor might also recommend a nasal saline, which could wash out the mucus in your nose. If the infection does not show signs of improving, drastic steps may be needed. These could include an increased dosage of antibiotics or surgery.

When Do I Need to Contact My Doctor About a Sinus Infection?

Most colds will go away with some over the counter medication. If it lingers on more than a week, or seems to be getting worse, refer to the symptoms above to help decide if you have a sinus infection. If you’re experiencing long-term pain around your eyes, plus a thick discharge from your nose, it might be time to reach out to a medical professional.

Man at a doctor's appointment


Mathew M. Varghese, MD

Diplomate American Board of Internal Medicine

Diplomate American Board of Allergy/Immunology

136 North Washington Ave. Suite 203

Bergenfield, NJ 07621


8901 Kennedy Blvd West, Suite 4SW

North Bergen, NJ 07047


Tel:  201-374-1718  

Fax: 201-374-1719




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