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Cold, Flu, & Cough Health Center

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Is It a Cold or Sinus Infection?

WebMD Feature

Watery eyes, a stuffy nose, sneezing: How long these symptoms last can be a clue to what’s causing your congestion. Is it a cold or a sinus infection?


If it’s a cold virus, you may find yourself close to a tissue box for several days. Most of the time, colds get better on their own in 10 days or less.

Cold Symptoms

Colds bring on a nasty mix of symptoms that can really wear you down. They can include:

Treating Your Cold

Because the common cold is a virus, antibiotics won’t help. But over-the-counter medications may make you feel better.

“The remedies you choose should be targeted at specific symptoms, so something for your headache, for your congestion, for your fever,” says Camelia Davtyan, MD, a professor of medicine at UCLA.

Davtyan also stresses getting plenty of fluids and rest. The latter, she recognizes, is often hard.

“Getting enough rest can be a problem, because people don’t want to skip work and they have so many things to do,” she says. You may also have a hard time staying asleep at night because you can’t breathe through your nose.

Davtyan recommends sinus irrigation. A neti pot helps thin mucus and flush out your sinuses with a mix of distilled water and salt.

“People who irrigate when they have a cold usually do better,” says Davtyan.

Sinus Infection

When your nasal passages become infected, that’s a sinus infection. And they’re harder to get rid of. Viruses, bacteria, or even allergies can lead to sinus infections.

Colds don’t usually cause sinus infections, says Davtyan, but they do offer a breeding ground for them.

“You touch your nose a lot when you’re sick, and each time you bring more bacteria to the sinuses,” she says. “Because your sinuses can’t drain, the bacteria stay there and grow.”

Sinus Infection Symptoms

Look for the following symptoms:

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