It’s the prime time of year for colds, which often lead to nasal congestion, coughing, and other symptoms that can be miserable. And although a cold can make life difficult for a few days, they usually clear on their own with no ill effects.
Sometimes, however, a cold leads to an infection of the sinuses known as sinusitis. How do you know if it’s just a cold -- or if it has progressed to something worse?
Signs of a sinus infection
If you develop a sinus infection, you’ll notice symptoms that are different from a typical cold. Sinusitis typically comes on the heels of a bad cold, but it may also result from allergies. Symptoms of sinusitis last longer than a cold, and are more severe. You may suffer from a cold for about a week, and then notice your symptoms start to get worse instead of better. Symptoms of sinusitis may include:
- Feeling of pressure or pain in your face
- A headache that won’t go away, usually located near your temples or in your teeth
- Thick nasal mucus that’s yellow or green in color (although this can occur at the end of a cold too)
- Unusual bad breath (caused by bacteria in the sinuses and throat)
- Loss of smell or taste that seems “off”
- Mild fever
Because symptoms of a sinus infection often mirror a bad cold, it can be difficult to determine which one is causing the problem. Some people believe that if they see yellow or green nasal secretions, that it must be a bacterial infection. In fact, most colds result in yellow or green nasal mucus because it’s a side effect of your body fighting off any infection — including a cold virus. It does not automatically mean you have a bacterial infection.
Keeping track of how long the symptoms last and how severe they are can give your physician a better idea of what’s going on. Then, you and your physician can discuss possible next steps to get you feeling better.
Antibiotics not always needed
Many people assume that a sinus infection automatically requires antibiotics. But new evidence suggests that many sinus infections clear just fine on their own, and that antibiotics don’t help. The majority of sinus infections resolve within 10 days.
Given the major problem of antibiotic resistance around the world, physicians are becoming more choosy about prescribing antibiotics. Using antibiotics for all sinus infections is not only unnecessary, but it puts you and others at risk of developing antibiotic-resistant bacteria in your body.
Instead, you may find relief with over-the-counter decongestants, nasal sprays and saline washes, pain relievers, and using a humidifier or steam.
Prevention is key
The best way to avoid colds (and resulting sinus infections) is to wash your hands often, eat a healthy diet, and get enough rest. These factors will help protect you from germs and keep your immune system functioning well.
CarePoint Health Primary Care
Your primary care physician can help you manage your healthcare, and answer any questions you have about your health. Your PCP will help you navigate your well visits and specialist care throughout your life, and will be your health care advocate. To find a skilled primary care physician at CarePoint Health, please contact us.
Content on our website is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. If you are experiencing a medical emergency, please call 911. Always consult your physician before making any changes to your medical treatment.