Allergies or Sinus Infection? Common Symptoms of Sinusitis

Updated on April 29, 2022
Closeup portrait of a miserable, sick adult woman with allergy, cold, blowing her nose with paper tissue, isolated on white background. Human face expressions. Flu season, vaccination, prevention.

Nasal congestion and not being able to breath is a terrible feeling. People that suffer from this tend to try various products like nose strips ( or nose sprays to try and unblock their airways. When symptoms are at their worst, you can’t rest properly, the struggle to breath makes you tired, the pressure leaves you with a headache, and the constant nasal drip makes you feel like your face has its own waterfall.

Millions of people struggle with this type of congestion, and if you are one of them, you may be wondering if your symptoms are caused by allergies or sinus infection. While many of the symptoms are the same, there are a few that are different, and it can be helpful to know the difference. 

Read on to learn how to distinguish between a sinus infection and allergies and how to seek the right treatment to feel better fast. 

The Body’s Allergy Response

Our bodies have some unique systems in place to protect themselves. One of them is the response to the introduction of an allergen. 

People can be allergic to different things. Some are hypersensitive to pet dander while others have a negative reaction to tree or grass pollen or mold. If you are allergic to a substance, your immune system goes into overdrive to protect you from what it believes is a foreign invader. 

That protection involves the production of antibodies that release a chemical called histamine that causes the symptoms we know as allergies. These symptoms include sneezing, nasal congestion, running nose, and watery eyes that are swollen and itch. 

Most allergies can be treated with over the counter allergy medicine. These contain anti-histamines that reduce the watery eyes and relieve the nasal congestion. If the symptoms are severe, prescribed decongestants, nasal sprays, and eye drops can help speed relief. 

Allergies or Sinus Infection: The Differences

The symptoms of a sinus infection (sinusitis) do closely resemble those of allergies. However, sinusitis is when the cavities surrounding your nasal passages become swollen. The inflammation causes a mucus build up and it becomes hard to breathe.

This collection of mucus also causes pressure on your face. Your eyes, nose, and cheeks become tender and you may have a headache, fever, nagging cough, and a sore throat. This mucus is thick and has a greenish or yellow tint. 

It is that thick mucus that signals one of the differences between allergies and a sinus infection. The average allergy reaction does not create that type of discharge. It is more loose and clear. 

In addition, a sinus infection generally does not cause the eyes to swell, itch, or become watery. If your symptoms include discomfort to the eyes, it is probably not a sinus infection. 

There are still times it is hard to tell the difference. Here is some additional information if you suffer from chronic congestion.

Causes of a Sinus Infection

Sinusitis is most often caused by a virus. A viral infection usually just has to run its course but the unpleasant symptoms can be treated with nasal sprays, decongestants, extra fluids, and rest. 

This type of sinus infection is also contagious, so care should be used not to pass it along to anyone else. 

There are times when a sinus infection is brought on by bacteria. The strep bacteria is often to blame. Having an infected tooth or swimming in water with bacteria present can also be a cause.

Like a viral infection, the bacterial kind will typically go away on its own as well, but if it persists, then an antibiotic may be needed to wipe out the infection. 

Nasal Polyps 

The presence of nasal polyps increases your chances of developing a sinus infection. These polyps are small growths within the lining of the nasal cavity. They are shaped like teardrops and hang down. They are more common in adults who have a history of chronic sinusitis. 

Small, or single, polyps seldom cause any symptoms or discomfort. If they form together to become larger, they can block the nasal passage and make it harder to breathe. Along with the congestion and pain associated with a sinus infection, having nasal polyps can also cause snoring problems and regular nosebleeds. 

There are medicines that can reduce the size of the nasal polyps or even eliminate them altogether. There are times when surgery is also an option. There is always the possibility of them returning, even after surgery. 

How to Treat a Sinus Infection

Using a warm compress can help with both the pain and the pressure. Lean back and apply a warm to hot washcloth across your eyes and nose. The moist heat will help to loosen the mucus so it can exit the nasal passages. An alternating cold compress can aid in pain relief. 

Irrigating your nasal passages with warm salt water is also a great way to relieve the pressure and help remove the mucus. You can make your own solution, or there are pre-made ones available for you at the pharmacy. Staying hydrated by drinking lots of water also helps. 

You can also get decongestants at the pharmacy. These work to counter the histamines and open up the passages. They will dry up the secretions and help with the sneezing. Decongestants come in the form of pills and also nasal sprays. These should only be used for a few days. If the symptoms persist after that, then you should consult your doctor. 

Over the counter pain medicines can also be used to treat the discomfort and sometimes fever that comes with a sinus infection. As mentioned above, with a bacterial infection, antibiotics may be needed and in severe cases sometimes steroids are also prescribed. 

Know the Facts

Having allergies or sinus infection may look and feel similar, but they are not the same thing. Knowing the facts and being able to tell the difference can mean finding the right treatment and getting well faster. 

Untreated sinusitis can lead to more serious conditions down the road, so steps should be taken to clear up the situation as soon as possible. 

If you are still unsure about your symptoms or how to treat them, call your doctor right away. 


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