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Winter Bug or Sinus Infection?

Winter Bug or Sinus Infection?

The cold months welcome cold and flu season. In a flurry of overlapping symptoms like headache and congestion, it’s important to distinguish which symptoms may be pointing to a different problem: a sinus infection.

Symptoms of the common cold and a sinus infection can be similar at first: sore throat, runny nose, cough. But sinus infections also present unique symptoms of their own. Ear, Nose, and Throat Physician Joshua Bradshaw walks us through sinusitis—one of the most common medical issues people seek treatment for.

How common is sinusitis?

“Sinus infections (or sinusitis) are extremely common,” says Dr. Bradshaw. “They are usually caused by a virus or bacteria, and can stem from allergies, asthma, and poor immunity, among other causes.” He adds that there are two types of sinus infections:

  • Acute sinusitis can develop in up to 10% of people who catch a cold and symptoms last less than four weeks.
  • Chronic sinusitis means that patients experience symptoms for more than 3 months and require long term treatment. This affects around 12% of adults in the US.

What are the symptoms of a sinus infection?’

A sinus infection is when the contents of the sinuses become backed up and infected. “When the sinuses get obstructed, it causes symptoms like pressure in the cheeks and forehead, headaches, thick mucus in the front or back of the nose, and nasal congestion,” says Dr. Bradshaw. Chronic sinus infections can present bigger problems like decreased smell, difficult breathing through the nose, cough, and nasal polyps.

How can you distinguish a sinus infection from a cold?

Colds and sinus infections present with similar symptoms like congestion and sneezing. Colds happen when a virus infects the upper respiratory tract, including your nose, mouth, and throat. When that virus infects the sinuses, in addition to the usual symptoms of the common cold, patients can get sinus pressure in the front of the face or around the eyes, headache, bad breath, or discolored mucus. These symptoms typically last for 7 to 10 days, but if they go on longer the infection may be bacterial.

How are sinus infections treated?

If the sinus infection is bacterial, your doctor will start with a short round of antibiotics. If the cause of the infection is viral, it can be treated similarly to a cold using antihistamines, decongestants, and watchful waiting. For acute infections, medical management usually nips the infection in the bud.

But if you’re among the 12% of the population that suffer from chronic sinusitis, more aggressive treatment may be needed. “If patients have a long-term problem, we may prescribe a nasal steroid like Flonase®, sinus rinses, oral steroids like prednisone, or a longer round of antibiotics,” says Dr. Bradshaw. When medical management fails, there are surgical options for chronic sinusitis including balloon sinuplasty, a minimally invasive surgery that Dr. Bradshaw performs in his office to open up the blocked sinuses.

When to See a Doctor for Sinus Infection (Sinusitis)

“Sinus infections are not fun,” says Dr. Bradshaw, “the congestion, headaches, and pressure can feel debilitating.” Don’t hesitate to make an appointment with your primary care provider or an ENT physician if you’ve had:

  • 10 days or more of runny nose, stuffy nose, and sinus pressure
  • Signs of a cold for a few days that started to get better and then worsened
  • A high fever (over 102F)
  • Green or yellow mucus and severe facial pain for more than a few days

Dr. Joshua Bradshaw

Dr. Joshua Bradshaw is an ENT Physician at Mountain West ENT | Ogden Clinic. He practices in Layton and Bountiful Utah. Book an appointment with Dr. Bradshaw online here or call 801-475-3000.