Allergies vs. Sinus Infection: How to Determine the Difference


man on sofa blowing his nose.

Your nose has been congested for weeks, interrupted by frequent, thunderous sneezes. The persistent pressure in your nasal passages makes it challenging to find rest, leaving you feeling fatigued and slightly irritable. It’s evident it’s not a common cold, as those symptoms typically clear up within days.

This leaves you contemplating whether it’s allergies or a sinus infection. However, distinguishing between the two is tricky, as their symptoms closely resemble each other.

What are sinus infections?

Sinus infections generally are not contagious. They occur because something causes inflammation in your sinuses like a cold or similar bug. Mucus and fluids can’t escape when your sinuses are swollen, and all of that excess buildup eventually causes infection.

The sinus infection itself can cause further inflammation, meaning symptoms of this particular ailment can persist for quite some time.

Symptoms of sinus infections

Common symptoms of sinus infections include:

  • A runny or stuffy nose
  • Sneezing
  • Headaches
  • Fatigue
  • Thick mucus with a distinct color to it (yellow or green)
  • Pressure-related headaches
  • Facial, ear, or mouth pain and pressure
  • Post-nasal drip
  • Fever
  • Bad Breath

What are symptoms of allergies?

Allergies, on the other hand, are caused by exposure to an allergen such as tree pollen, dust, or kittens. Whatever you happen to be allergic to is misidentified by your body as an invader and your immune system defenses kick into gear as a response. That’s why you start sniffling and sneezing—your body is trying to push the allergens out.

Symptoms of allergies

Common signs of allergies include:

  • A runny or stuffy nose
  • Sneezing
  • Headaches
  • Fatigue
  • Itchy eyes
  • Red eyes
  • Wheezing

What’s the difference between allergies and sinus infections?

If you’re trying to determine the source of your sneezes, it could be worth paying special attention to when your symptoms come and go. A sinus infection will likely progress and decline over time, but the feeling of the symptoms will likely be pretty consistent on an hour-by-hour basis (at least broadly speaking). That won’t necessarily be true for allergies which are usually in response to the presence of an allergen.

If your runny nose or sneezing gets worse when you perform certain activities (such as gardening or cleaning) or when you go outside, that could be a good sign you’re dealing with allergies. Likewise, if you happen to get a stuffy nose around the same time every year, that’s more evidence you’re dealing with seasonal allergies.

Of course, allergies can also cause a sinus infection and you should get it checked out if your symptoms don’t resolve.

Allergies and sinus infections can feel very similar, so if you have any doubt it’s a good idea to see a physician to find out for sure.

Treatments for allergies and sinus infections differ

It’s important to know the difference between allergies and sinus infections because the treatments will differ considerably.

Treatments for a sinus infection may include a course of antibiotics or a prescription for steroids. Treatment for allergies, on the other hand, may mean taking over-the-counter antihistamines. Your body’s own immune system may eventually heal a sinus infection. Allergies can be trickier to treat.

In cases where allergies become a long-term problem, your physician may recommend allergy shots. Also called immunotherapy, allergy shots can diminish your susceptibility to certain allergens. The idea is that these shots expose your body to tiny but ever-growing amounts of allergens and your immune system becomes less sensitive over time. This can help you live without allergy symptoms.

If you have repeated sinus infections, on the other hand, your options may include surgery to fix structural issues in your nose (such as a deviated septum).

When to see a medical professional

Don’t try to self-diagnose. Take the time to visit your physician, especially if you don’t feel as though you’re getting any better.

A cold will likely be gone in a number of days—maybe a week and a half at most. If your stuffy nose persists, then a sinus infection or allergic reaction is the likely culprit. Your doctor will be able to listen to your symptoms and determine the best way to find you some relief.

If you’re unable to find relief, find an ENT specialist near you to discuss your symptoms and receive a treatment plan unique for you.

Want more information?

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