Do I Have Sinusitis or a Cold?

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Sinus inflammation is a common and can be a painful and often debilitating condition. Recognize the signs and manage this condition better.

Every year, millions of people are affected by a painful and often debilitating condition of the sinuses and nasal passages called sinusitis, or sinus inflammation. For many people, sinusitis occurs often and can become a chronic and persistent problem that causes pain, congestion, and time away from work, friends, or family. Sinusitis is caused by allergies, viral infection or bacterial infection. Some people mistake a sinus condition for a common cold, but additional treatment may be needed.

Your sinuses consist of four pairs of cavities, or spaces, in your head on either side of your face. One pair is located in your forehead above the eyes, a second lies between your eyes, another is on either side of the top of your nose, and a fourth is found in your cheeks beneath the eyes. These paranasal sinuses connect your nose and throat directly to the outside air, are lined with warm, moist membranes that produce mucus and antibodies that help fight upper-respiratory tract infections and humidify and filter the air that you breathe. Healthy sinuses are open, allowing mucus to drain into the nasal passages. When the lining of the sinuses becomes inflamed by an allergic reaction or an infection, normal drainage is impaired, causing pressure to build. You may begin to experience intense pain in your face.

The allergy mechanism for sinus inflammation is more likely if it is allergy season, typically spring or fall. Were you exposed to something to which you know you are allergic like ragweed or tree pollen? Allergic reactions often result in sneezing with a stuffy, runny, or itchy nose. Also take note if your nasal drip is clear or whitish in color, your eyes are itchy, watery, or burning. You may feel mild pressure or pain in your upper teeth, cheeks, top of your nose, between your eyes, or in your forehead. And you may be more susceptible if you have a personal or family history of hay fever, asthma, food intolerance, skin allergies, or other allergies.

Blocked sinuses are an ideal environment for viruses and bacteria to colonize. Sinus infections usually occur when sinuses become blocked, making the warm, moist, mucus-filled sinus cavity a perfect medium in which viruses or bacteria can grow. Although neither a cold nor an allergy flare-up causes sinus infections, there is a link. These conditions may cause inflammation in the sinus cavity and prevent sinuses from draining properly. This blockage can potentially lead to congestion and infection. It's important, therefore, to notify your doctor when cold or allergy symptoms seem to hang on longer than usual (5-7 days).

Infection is most likely viral if the symptoms are similar to those of an allergic reaction, but you may have a high-grade fever (101.5° F or more) at times. You may experience generalized body aches and fatigue. You may also be coughing have drainage from your nose that becomes thicker or your nasal discharge is clear to yellowish. You may have a sore throat, hoarseness; or feel mild pressure or pain in your upper teeth, cheeks, top of your nose, between your eyes, or in your forehead. Treatment is focused on decongesting the sinuses and control of debilitating symptoms.

A bacterial sinus infection may be developing if you have two or more of the following symptoms. Are you are running a low-grade fever (101.5° F or less), you feel moderate to severe pressure or pain in your upper teeth, cheeks, top of your nose, or in your forehead? Or is your nose stuffed and the mucus is thick and yellow, greenish, grayish, or brownish and your symptoms last for more than 10-14 days? Treatment often requires appropriate antibiotics.

Sinusitis may be considered a chronic condition when you have frequent sinus infections, or when your sinus infection lasts more than 8-12 weeks. Ironically, chronic sinus infections may be milder than acute infections. However, chronic sinus infections may cause permanent injury to your sinuses, and your doctor may suggest surgery as an option to clear your sinuses and improve drainage.

A variety of effective treatments are available for sinusitis. The treatment that is best for a particular sinus condition depends on the cause and your specific medical history. Most importantly, recognize the difference between a sinus condition and a common cold and seek the help of your doctor to provide the best specific and focused treatment for you.

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About This Article

Dr. Samuel Strauss

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