When a Cold Becomes a Sinus Infection

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on February 22, 2023

You're sneezing, coughing, and all stuffed up. It sounds and feels like a cold, alright. But as time goes on, you start to wonder. Is it turning into a sinus infection?

They've got some things in common, but there are ways to tell them apart. The right diagnosis lets your doctor get you the best treatment.

What Is a Common Cold?

It's an illness caused by many different kinds of viruses, which are tiny infectious particles.

You can't miss the symptoms:

  • Nasal congestion
  • Runny nose
  • Postnasal drip (drop-by-drop release of fluid from your nose into the back of the throat)
  • Headache
  • Fatigue

You may also get a cough and a mild fever. The symptoms usually build, peak, and slowly disappear. Some medications can ease symptoms. For example, decongestants may decrease drainage and open the nasal passages. Pain relievers may help with fever and headache. Cough medicine or a bioelectronic sinus device may help, as well.

Colds typically last from a few days to about a week or longer.

Sometimes, a cold may cause swelling in the sinuses, hollow spaces in your skull that are connected to each other. The swelling can prevent the flow of mucus.

This can lead to a sinus infection. If you have pain around your face and eyes -- and thick yellow or green mucus for more than a week -- see your doctor.

What Is a Sinus Infection?

It's inflammation or swelling of your sinuses. Normally they're filled with air. When they become blocked and filled with fluid, bacteria can grow there and cause infection. The result: a sinus infection. You may hear your doctor refer to it as sinusitis.

What Are the Symptoms of a Sinus Infection?

They may include things like:

  • Thick, yellow, foul-smelling discharge from your nose
  • Pressure or pain around your face and eyes
  • Headache (generally in the forehead area)
  • Blockage in your nose
  • Congestion
  • Postnasal drip
  • A cold that won't go away or gets worse
  • Fever or cough

These symptoms can also happen with a cold. But if they continue for more than 10 days, you may have a sinus infection.

What Causes It?

Any condition that blocks off the drainage channels of your sinuses can cause a sinus infection, such as:

A sinus infection may start after a cold. It can also happen because of something called a deviated septum, which refers to a shift in your nasal cavity.

How Is a Sinus Infection Diagnosed and Treated?

Your doctor will give you a physical exam and take your medical history. You might get a CT scan of your sinuses.

Your doctor may prescribe medication. They may recommend antibiotics if your symptoms go on for more than 10 days. Decongestants, antihistamines, and other drugs help lessen the swelling in your sinuses and nasal passages.

Steam and hot showers can help you loosen mucus. Your doctor may also suggest nasal saline to wash mucus from your nose.

In rare cases, when a sinus infection doesn't go away, long-term antibiotics or surgery may be needed.

When Should I Call the Doctor About a Cold or Sinus Infection?

Most colds go away without medical treatment. If you have pain around your face or eyes, along with thick yellow or green nasal discharge for more than a week, check with your doctor. Also call them if you have fever or symptoms that are severe or don't get better with over-the-counter treatments.

Show Sources

National Jewish Medical and Research Center: "It a Cold or the Flu?"
American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology: "Sinusitis."
Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America: "Rhinitis and Sinusitis."
National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases: "Sinusitis."
UpToDate: "Acute Sinusitis and Rhinosinusitis in Adults."

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