Your nose has been stuffy for weeks, punctuated frequently by booming sneezes. Because of the constant pressure in your nose, it’s hard to get any sleep, and you’re feeling run down (not to mention a little cranky). You know it’s not a cold, as that would have cleared up days ago.
That leaves a few other possibilities like allergies or a sinus infection. The trouble is that the symptoms of both conditions are close.
Common symptoms of allergies and 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.
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 invading bad actor–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.
While they both have significantly different causes, the symptoms of allergies and sinus infections present in similar fashions.
Symptoms usually include:
- A runny or stuffy nose
Symptoms only associated with allergies include itchy eyes, red eyes, and wheezing.
Symptoms only associated with sinus infections include thick mucus with a distinct color to it, pressure-related headaches (often with a toothache), post-nasal drip, feeling as though your face is in pain or swollen, fever, and bad breath.
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.
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.
It’s important to know the difference between allergies and sinus infections because the treatments will differ considerably. Therapies 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).
Let your doctor decide
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.