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What's Causing Your Sniffles - Cold, Sinus Infection or Allergies?

March 24, 2023

It’s that time of year when a sniffle, congestion or headache can leave you wondering the cause – cold? Sinus infection? Or allergies? With the allergy season starting earlier due to the mild winter, Alejandro Belistri, APRN, a primary care provider with the Hartford HealthCare Medical Group in Bridgeport, offers a few ways to tell the difference so you can best treat your condition. [insert-cta-small id=48044]

What’s causing your congestion?

“A patient should consider a few basic questions to differentiate between a cold, allergies and sinus infection,” Belistri explains. The questions and differences are:

1. How long do the symptoms last?

  • Colds typically peak within 3-5 days, and improve over the next week.
  • Sinus infections can persist for longer.
  • Allergies last as long as your exposure to the allergen or you seek treatment.
“If what you think is a cold fades and then returns with only nasal congestion, runny nose and/or sinus pressure, it could be a sinus infection,” he explains. > Related: How a Doctor Can Diagnose the Cause of Your Cough

2. What symptoms do you have?

  • Colds bring fatigue, muscle aches, nasal congestion, runny nose, sneezing, cough, sore throat and watery eyes.
  • Sinus infections add facial pain, sinus pressure or tenderness.
  • Allergies typically cause itchy and watery eyes, sneezing, wheezing, cough, sore throat, runny nose and, in some cases, skin rashes.
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Finding relief

Over-the-counter pain relievers, antihistamines and decongestants can relieve symptoms caused by colds, allergies or acute sinusitis, Belistri says. “The patient should see a medical provider if there is fever or pus-like nasal discharge, or if their nasal congestion or facial tenderness worsens or lasts more than 10 days,” he explains, adding that sinus infections can also cause ear infections in some people. Sinus infections caused by bacteria may need prescription antibiotics to clear, he says. Belistri also offers these tips for easing the congestion at home:
  • Using a humidifier or vaporizer.
  • Taking a hot shower, allowing the steam to clear your sinuses.
  • Drinking more fluids to thin out nasal secretions.
  • Squirting over-the-counter saline nasal spray in each nostril.
  • Placing a warm wet towel or heating pad on the face.
  • Lightly massaging the face.