Sniffling, coughing, watery eyes. Of all the potential culprits behind these misery-making symptoms, a sinus infection (aka, sinusitis) is arguably the most misunderstood. It can masquerade as a bad cold, with the same stuffed-up nose, headache and mucus dripping down the back of your throat. It can produce the same runny nose and watery eyes that go along with seasonal allergies. It can even mimic COVID-19 caused by the omicron variant by way of fever and fatigue.
With all the overlap in symptoms, how can you know if sinusitis — which is most often caused by a virus but sometimes bacteria — is the culprit? Here’s what you need to know about sinus infections, including how to spot them, treat them and, better yet, prevent them.
Is it a sinus infection?
Symptoms may send mixed signals at first, but time will often tell. Whereas cold symptoms tend to improve within a week to 10 days, a sinus infection (particularly a bacterial sinus infection) lingers longer and without much improvement in symptoms. Sinus infections also tend to bring pressure — you may feel pain or tenderness in the face — as well as bad breath and yellow or green mucus (a cold is more likely to produce clear mucus).
Symptoms of a sinus infection
Common symptoms include:
- Runny nose
- Stuffy nose
- Facial pain or pressure
- Post-nasal drip
- Sore throat
- Bad breath
If it’s allergies (allergic rhinitis, or hay fever), symptoms arise after you come into contact with whatever you’re allergic to; dust, animal dander and pollen are common triggers. It’s important to know, too, that both a cold and allergies can morph into a sinus infection.
What is a sinus infection?
Your sinuses — those air-filled pockets located in your forehead, cheeks, at the bridge of your nose and way behind your eyes — are designed to warm, moisten and filter the air passing through. But when fluid builds up in these hard-to-reach spaces, germs can linger and multiply, resulting in an infection.
Say, for instance, you have an allergic response to pollen. “The inside of your nose has a ramped-up immune response, and that overreaction to the environment creates secretions in your nose, and those secretions build up over time,” explains Alfred Iloreta Jr., M.D., assistant professor of otolaryngology at the Mount Sinai Hospital and Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City. When that happens, the mucus in your nose becomes “a petri dish for a lot of other things to grow.”