Jul 19, 2022
Sinus Infection vs. Allergies: How To Tell The Difference
5 minute read
Being sick comes with its share of frustrating symptoms, but arguably the most hindering are those related to your nose. Having sinus congestion, a stuffy nose, runny nose, or other nose-related symptoms can make you feel heavy, worn out, and overall uncomfortable.
Anyone who’s ever experienced an allergy-related symptom can probably tell you that a clogged-up nose is one of the worst parts. And anyone who’s ever had a sinus infection can probably say the same thing. But how can you tell what’s what?
Sinus infections and allergies look and feel pretty similar, but some key differences are important to differentiate. Here’s how to tell one from the other.
The Signs of Sinusitis
Sinus infections, or sinusitis, occur when fluid builds up in your sinuses, which are air-filled pockets in your face. Most sinus infections are caused by viruses, though sometimes bacteria might be the source.
On the other hand, allergens are caused by allergens, which are harmless substances that your immune system perceives as harmful. When confronted with an allergen threat, your body releases a chemical called histamine that causes many associated symptoms. This is where things like runny and stuffy nose stem from.
You’re likely to get a sinus infection either during or after getting over a cold or the flu. Symptoms can persist for a week or two. However, allergies persist for as long as you’re exposed to the allergen. In some cases, such as seasonal allergies, the suspected allergen can linger for months.
People who are more susceptible to allergies, or have other immunological dysfunctions such as asthma, are more prone to developing a sinus infection.
There are certain symptoms of both sinus infection and allergies that are common between the two. Namely, these are headaches, congestion, difficulty breathing through the nose, and runny nose.
However, certain symptoms are rare in allergies yet commonly felt with a sinus infection. These include:
- Pain around the cheeks or eyes
- Inability to blow nose
On the other hand, some symptoms are pretty limited to only allergies. For instance, sneezing, itchy eyes, and coughing are common symptoms of allergies that aren’t normally present in sinusitis.
Usually, sinus infections are a defining characteristic: the symptoms are a bit more severe than those felt with allergies. While both are uncomfortable, sinus infections often feel a lot more debilitating.
Since sinus infections and allergies are both caused by different things, you need to take the steps to treat them.
A sinus infection that is caused by a virus cannot necessarily be “treated.” Instead, you need to allow your body to take its time to flush it out on its own. You can help speed up the process by getting plenty of rest, drinking lots of fluids, and using nasal saline sprays to keep your nostrils hydrated.
If bacteria cause your sinus infection, a doctor may be able to prescribe antibiotics to help. However, in most cases, you may not need to go to a doctor to allow your sinus infection to go away. The exception is if your symptoms worsen or persist for more than two weeks.
You also probably don’t need to see a doctor for your allergies. You can treat these with medications called antihistamines. Antihistamines block the production of histamines, which are chemicals that cause the symptoms of allergies. These can help reduce nasal symptoms but are also helpful for bringing relief to itchy allergy eyes, coughing, sore throat, and more.
Allergy medications won’t be too helpful with a sinus infection, though. With that said, there are some ways to clear up the uncomfortable congestion that you may experience with both.
Decongest To Feel Your Best
If your clogged nostrils are making you feel less than your best, have no fear! Cleared is here with some of the best tips and tricks to help snuff out the snot.
Firstly, you can take over-the-counter decongestants to help clear up your sinuses. When your body detects something like a sinus infection, it swells up the blood vessels in your sinuses to help prevent other substances from making their way in. Decongestants work by narrowing the blood vessels to make it easier and more comfortable to breathe. It is important to follow the instructions on how to use these medications to prevent any unnecessary side effects.
Additionally, using a humidifier can be helpful to soothe irritated tissues and swollen blood vessels in your airways. If you don’t have a humidifier, the steam from a hot shower might be able to do the trick, too.
Finally, placing a warm compress over your nose may help loosen your nasal passages and flush out some fluids. Just run a small washcloth under warm water and squeeze it damp. Then, place it over your face and relax.
Making Mention of Prevention
Sinus infections and allergies can be preventable, though taking steps towards avoidance differs for both.
Preventing a sinus infection is possible, and you’ll do this in the same way you’d try to avoid the flu or other infectious diseases. Build up your immune system with Vitamin C, wash your hands often, stay away from individuals who you know are sick, and wear face coverings in settings with large crowds of people.
While you can’t necessarily prevent them from occurring, you can take steps towards avoidance with allergies.
First, you need to know what exactly you’re allergic to. You can usually figure this out by assessing what substances cause you to feel a reaction, but you can get more clarity and peace of mind by getting an allergy test.
Once you know what you’re allergic to, it’s easier to take preventative measures. If pollen is the problem, you can try to stay inside on dry, windy days where pollen counts tend to be highest. If indoor dust mites or pet dander are making your eyes water, frequently cleaning your linens or using an air purifier can work wonders to keep a congested nose at bay.
You can also prevent yourself from developing allergy symptoms by treating the root of the cause with immunotherapy. Allergy immunotherapy works by gradually exposing you to an allergen over time so that your immune system can build up its defenses.
Sublingual immunotherapy is FDA approved, easy to use, and has lasting effects. Join the 77 percent of people who reported better sleep, the 83 percent of people who reported more daily energy, and the 90 percent of people who reported improvement in general health status. Because why suffer from allergies when you don’t have to?
Brisk Risk Factors
Certain pre-existing conditions can put you at risk of developing either a sinus infection or allergies.
For chronic sinusitis, the risk factors include:
- Deviated nasal septum
- Nasal polyps
- Sensitivity to aspirin
- Dental infection
- Fungal infection
- Immune system disorder
Additionally, hay fever or another allergic condition can put you at a predisposition for sinusitis. Speaking of allergies, some risk factors that can make you more prone to developing a reaction to allergens include:
- People with a family history of asthma or other allergic conditions
- Young children
There are also some risk factors that both sinus infections and allergies share. For one, having asthma can put you at risk for sinuitis or allergic reactions. Additionally, regular exposure to pollutants like cigarette smoke or smog can predispose you to a sinus infection or worsen allergy symptoms.
What Your Nose Should Know
Sinus infections and allergies both take similar forms, but they’re very different in many ways. For one, sinus infections are often caused by a virus or bacteria, whereas allergies are caused by substances called allergens.
The symptoms of both usually present as stuffy nose and congestion. However, a sinus infection is often accompanied by pain and discomfort in the face and the inability to blow your nose.
Treatment of a sinus infection normally involves just giving it some time for your immune system to naturally dispel the substance or antibiotics. Allergies can be alleviated with avoidance or antihistamine medications. You can also use decongestants to feel some relief from both.
Nasal sprays are great ways to open up your sinuses and feel more comfortable. If allergies or a stuffy nose are getting the best of you, Cleared has everything you need to feel better for just a fraction of the cost of name brands.
Dr. Payel Gupta
Medically reviewed by Dr. Payel Gupta
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