How to Tell a Cold from a Sinus Infection

Woman Sneezing

When you feel fatigued, slightly feverish, have a scratchy throat and are grabbing tissues like crazy, are you dealing with a standard cold - or a sinus infection? They may seem similar, but there are different signs that will help you tell them apart. Knowing what you're dealing with can lead to the best treatment and the fastest recovery.


The common cold is a virus that causes an infection in the upper respiratory area. Colds usually come on slowly and then after a few days, they peak. Along the way, you might experience nasal congestion, fatigue, a runny nose, sneezing, sore throat, and post nasal drip. You might also find that your cold brings along a cough and headache. The good news? By the seventh day, your cold should be history.


Drinking lots of liquids is essential. Water is best. The more hydrated you get, the easier your mucus liquefies and leaves your system.

OTC medications. There are plenty on the market, and some may help you feel more comfortable: decongestants, pain relievers for headache, and cough medicines to suppress your cough or expel the mucus.

Riding symptoms out. Since most colds only last a week, you don't have to worry about reducing activities according to your energy level.

Chicken soup. Scientific studies have shown chicken soup offers temporary relief of cold symptoms. Season with garlic for added power.


Bummer alert: sometimes colds can turn into sinus infections. It happens when your cold causes the sinus to swell, preventing the flow of mucus. After two or three days of dealing with your cold, if nasal mucus turns into a green or yellow discharge, than you probably have a sinus infection. Other symptoms include pain or pressure behind the eyes or cheeks, back of the neck, and even the teeth. That's because the roots of upper teeth run into the sinus cavity. Headaches are also common. And just like a cold, you'll probably feel tired, have difficulty breathing and lose your sense of smell and taste. Unlike a cold, sinus infections can last a few weeks - or longer.


GET CHECKED OUT. If you suspect you have a sinus infection, make an appointment with your doctor for an exam.

TAKE MEDICATIONS. Sinusitis infections can be treated with decongestants and antihistamines to decrease the swelling in your sinuses and nasal passages. Sometimes a sinus infection requires a course of antibiotics.

USE NASAL SALINE. Saline is available either in spray form or in the popular neti pot; both have also been shown to improve nasal symptoms and frequency of sinus infections.

Robin Westen is ThirdAge's medical reporter. Check for her daily updates. Her newest book, co-authored with Dr. Alyssa Dweck, is "V Is For Vagina."