Sinus Infection vs. Cold: Understanding the Differences


When you feel under the weather, it can sometimes be challenging to pinpoint what's wrong. We've all been there – you're suddenly overcome with a runny nose, persistent cough and a painful headache. It might just be a common cold, but it could also be something worse, like a sinus infection.

Although symptoms of both illnesses tend to overlap, there are a few tell-tale signs that can help you spot the difference. When it comes to the sinus infection vs. cold problem, understanding these key differences is essential to determine the best course of action regarding your treatment.

This article will highlight the differences between colds and sinus infections, take a deeper look at the symptoms of each and help patients understand what treatment options they have for each of these respiratory diseases.

Article Contents:

  • How to Accurately Spot a Cold or Sinus Infection

  • Symptoms: Common Cold vs. Sinus Infection

  • Understanding the Difference Between Cold and Sinus Infection

  • Can a Cold Turn Into a Sinus Infection?

  • How to Treat a Sinus Infection or Cold

How to Accurately Spot a Cold or Sinus Infection

A key element of determining whether you have a cold or sinus infection is understanding each type of illness. While the overlap of symptoms is broad, these are still two very different illnesses. This section will define what both colds and sinus infections are.

What Is a Cold?

The common cold is so widespread and contagious that it's recognized as the single most common cause of doctor visits in the U.S. (roughly 110 million per year) [1]. When you have a cold, it means your body is fighting off an upper respiratory viral infection. There are nearly 200 types of viruses that can cause common cold symptoms [2].

One of the most important distinguishing differences between colds and sinus infections is the method of contamination. Colds can be spread by exchanging contaminated water droplets in the air (commonly through coughing or sneezing) or touching a dirty surface. On average, adults experience two to four colds per year, while infants and young children typically experience six to eight [3]. Certain factors, such as smoking or a weakened immune system, can increase the risk.

What Is a Sinus Infection?

Affecting an estimated 11.6% of American adults, sinus infections develop when the lining of the sinus cavities becomes inflamed and irritated, preventing proper mucus drainage and constricting airflow [4]. When mucus builds up in the sinus passages, it becomes an ideal breeding ground for viruses, bacteria and fungi, which lead to infection. Additionally, allergies, environmental irritants and nasal polyps or growths in your sinuses may increase the risk of developing a sinus infection [5].

When discussing sinus infection vs. cold symptoms, it's important to note that sinus infections tend to be far more severe than the common cold.


Symptoms: Common Cold vs. Sinus Infection

As mentioned, distinguishing between these two illnesses can be challenging for patients and healthcare professionals. Your symptoms are the most helpful clues in determining whether you have a sinus infection or cold. This section will discuss these symptoms in further detail and highlight their main differences.

Symptoms of a Cold

The most common symptoms of a cold include coughing, a sore throat, a runny nose and a mild fever. However, full body aches and other discomfort are sometimes common as well. Symptoms of a cold often appear one to three days after exposure and generally resolve on their own within seven to ten days [6].

No matter the severity of your cold, the symptoms will be the same. The complete list of symptoms includes:

  • Cough

  • Sore Throat

  • Headache

  • Mucus Buildup

  • Stuffy Nose

  • Sneezing

  • Swollen Sinuses

  • Fatigue

  • Low-grade Fever

Symptoms of a Sinus Infection

As mentioned, the symptoms of a sinus infection are generally more severe and can be your best indication when determining if you have a sinus infection or a cold. Along with coughing, sneezing and a feeling of fullness in your ears, common symptoms of a sinus infection include:

  • Sinus Pressure or Pain Behind the Cheeks and Eyes

  • Runny, Stuffy Nose for More Than a Week

  • Constant, Worsening Headaches

  • Fever

  • Bad Breath (Halitosis)

  • Thick Yellow or Green Mucus

  • Fatigue

  • Decreased Sense of Smell

  • Facial Pain

Understanding the Difference Between Cold and Sinus Infection

The duration and intensity of your symptoms can help you determine whether you have a cold or sinus infection. While the symptoms of a cold generally improve after three to five days, a sinus infection will linger far longer or may not resolve at all. You likely have a sinus infection if your symptoms don't settle or improve for more than 10 days [7].

Additionally, your mucus color is one of the most significant differences between colds and sinus infections. Clear, watery mucus is typically a sign of a simple cold. However, a sinus infection will cause your mucus to become thick and green or yellow. You probably have a sinus infection if you experience intense nasal discharge and have difficulty blowing your nose.


How to Treat a Sinus Infection or Cold

Getting the proper treatment as soon as possible is critical to recovery if you get a cold or sinus infection. Cold and flu medications offer relief, but you must visit your doctor if your symptoms become more severe or last longer than 10 days. They may prescribe medicines to help you fully recover.

Cold Treatment

Most people don't require prescription medications to treat a cold, and there's no vaccine or outright cure. Instead, taking over-the-counter pain relievers, decongestants and cough suppressants while your body develops immunity and fights off the infection is essential to recovery. Additionally, following a cold treatment regimen is recommended. This can include:

  • Getting plenty of restful sleep.

  • Staying home from work or school.

  • Drinking fluids.

  • Quitting or temporarily stopping smoking.

  • Staying clear of alcohol and caffeine.

Sinus Infection Treatment

If you think you might have a sinus infection, you should see your physician immediately. For sinus infections, treatment usually involves taking prescribed antibiotics, decongestants or anti-inflammatory medications [7]. Sometimes, your doctor may even recommend a saline wash or nasal irrigation to help clear the sinuses.

Over-the-counter cold medications can also help ease your discomfort while you wait for the antibiotics to do their job. To avoid potentially harmful side-effects or medicinal conflicts, be sure to speak to your doctor or pharmacist, or refer to the package insert whenever taking multiple medications at one time

Can a Cold Turn Into a Sinus Infection?

Yes, it's possible that a cold can turn into a sinus infection. Sometimes, a cold can lead to a bacterial infection, causing sinusitis. As mentioned, seeing a medical professional is vital if your cold symptoms last longer than 10 days or if you suddenly feel your symptoms become more severe.


Have a Cold or Sinus Infection? Can Help

Now that you understand the differences between sinus infections vs. cold symptoms, you're one step closer to finding the proper treatment to take your health back. At, we make it easier than ever to find cold or sinus infection medication at the lowest possible is a pharmacy referral service that provides prescription and over-the-counter antibiotic medications at prices far below what local American pharmacies charge. And with our fast and reliable mail-order service, your order arrives conveniently right to your door! Don't let your sinus infection or cold symptoms keep you from enjoying life to the fullest. Find what you need at today.


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The content on this page is for informational and educational purposes only and does not constitute professional medical advice. Patients should not use the information presented on this page for diagnosing a health-related issue or disease. Before taking any medication or supplements, patients should always consult a physician or qualified healthcare professional for medical advice or information about whether a drug is safe, appropriate or effective.