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How to Tell the Difference Between Allergies, a Cold, and Sinusitis

We're officially a month into spring, and if you've been enjoying the warmer weather and blooming flowers you may also be dealing with all the classic signs of spring allergies: sneezing, runny nose, and watery eyes. But many of these symptoms are shared by other common spring ailments, like sinusitis and the common cold. How can you tell which is which? Read on for a guide

Spring Allergies for Allergy Awareness Week

What Causes Allergic Reactions

Allergy symptoms appear when the immune system reacts to a substance that has entered the body as though it was harmful. The immune system will produce special antibodies capable of recognizing the same allergic substance if it enters the body at a later time. 

When an allergen reenters the body, the immune system rapidly recognizes it causing a series of reactions. These reactions often involve tissue destruction, blood vessel dilation, and production of many inflammatory substances including histamine. Histamine produces the common allergy symptoms we're all familiar with, from nasal and sinus congestion to itchy, watery eyes.

Diagnosing and Treating Allergies

For some allergy sufferers, symptoms may be seasonal, but for others, it is a year round discomfort. Allergy symptom control is most successful when multiple management approaches are used simultaneously. They may include: minimizing exposure to allergens, desensitization with allergy shots, and medications. 

Medications including antihistamines, nasal decongestant sprays, steroid sprays, saline sprays, and cortisone type preparations, can be helpful. Though some can cause drowsiness, some over-the-counter drugs may be beneficial. 

If you have severe allergy problems and they interfere with your life, you may want to make an appointment with an otolaryngologist (an ear, nose, and throat specialist). They will offer advice on proper environmental control and evaluate the sinuses to determine if an infection or structural abnormality is contributing to the symptoms. In some cases, immunotherapy or allergy shots may even be recommended. 

Family with Springtime Common Cold Virus

Catching Spring Colds

We usually associate colds with their peak season in winter, but they're still common in spring. The common cold is a virus (with over 200 variants!) that infects the upper respiratory tract, and it tends to follow a set pattern:

  1. Incubation: Typically symptoms develop 1 to 3 days after exposure, but can start as early as 10 to 12 hours. You may be able to spot this early stage by an irritation or "tickle" at the back of your throat.
  2. Symptoms Peak: Symptoms are usually strongest at 1 to 3 days, but can last longer.
  3. Symptoms Fade: This can take anywhere from 3 to 10 days, although symptoms lingering beyond this point isn't uncommon.

What is Sinusitis?

Acute bacterial sinusitis is an infection of the sinus cavities caused by bacteria. It usually is preceded by a cold, allergy attack, or irritation by environmental pollutants. Unlike a cold or allergy, bacterial sinusitis requires a physician's diagnosis and treatment with an antibiotic to cure the infection and prevent future complications.

Normally, mucus collecting in the sinuses drain into the nasal passages. When you have a cold or allergy flare-up, your sinuses become inflamed and are unable to drain. This can lead to congestion and infection.

When you have frequent sinusitis, or the infection lasts 3 months or more, it could be chronic sinusitis. Symptoms of chronic sinusitis may be less severe than those of acute; however, left untreated chronic sinusitis can cause damage to the sinuses and cheekbones that can sometimes require surgery to repair.

Functional endoscopic sinus surgery is recommended for certain types of sinus disease. With the endoscope, the surgeon can look directly into the nose, while at the same time, removing any diseased tissue and polyps, and clear the narrow channels between the sinuses.

Knowing the Difference Between Allergies, the Common Cold, and Sinusitis

Symptoms of Allergies, Cold, and Sinusitis: Knowing the Difference

How can you tell if your symptoms belong to sinusitis, a cold, or just allergies? Let's break them down below:

  • Facial Pressure/Pain: This is most common with sinusitis, although it can sometimes happen with an allergy and cold.
  • Duration of Illness: With sinusitis, the illness usually lasts over 10-14 days, where it varies with allergies, and is typically under 10 days for a cold.
  • Nasal Discharge: Sinusitis normally has whitish or green colored nasal discharge. Allergy discharge is clear, thin, and watery, while a cold can be thick, whitish, or thin.
  • Fever: A fever is sometimes a common symptom of both sinusitis and a cold, but is not a common symptom for allergies.
  • Headache: Headaches are extremely common for all of these issues. It is a definite symptom of sinusitis and can also occur with allergies and a cold, as well.
  • Pain in Upper Teeth: This is sometimes a symptom of sinusitis, but not for allergies and a cold.
  • Bad Breath: Occasionally, with sinusitis, you may notice that you exhibit bad breath. Normally, this is not a common symptom of a cold or allergies.
  • Coughing: Coughing can be a symptom of all, but is most likely seen with a cold.
  • Nasal Congestion: Similarly, nasal congestion can be a symptom of all, but is most definite in both a cold and sinusitis.
  • Sneezing: With allergies and a cold, you are most likely to sneeze and have a runny nose. With sinusitis, you are usually so congested that you cannot sneeze.

Whether you have allergies, sinusitis, or a cold, it's always best to be medically evaluated, therefore you have a better knowledge of what treatment or medication would be best for you. Be sure to contact your doctor or other qualified health care professional before taking any medication, supplements, or starting a new health regimen.