When your nose is stuffy, you may be wondering whether you have a cold or a sinus infection. So which is it? A stuffy nose and sneezing are typical symptoms of the common cold. But if you’re also noticing pain and pressure, there’s a good chance you have a sinus infection. Learn more about the differences below so you can get the relief you need.

What causes a sinus infection?

A sinus infection (sinusitis) happens when the lining of your sinus cavities gets inflamed from a viral infection, like a cold. This causes swelling, which can block normal sinus drainage into the nose and throat. In a sinus infection, fluid builds up and can’t drain, allowing viruses, bacteria or fungi to start growing. The resulting infection causes more swelling and pain – and is the main difference between a cold and a sinus infection.

What are the symptoms of a sinus infection?

A stuffy or runny nose can be a symptom of either a regular cold or a sinus infection, but you can tell it’s a sinus infection if you experience pain or pressure in your face. When you have blocked sinuses, pressure builds up inside them. This can make your face sensitive to the touch, especially around your nose and eyes. Plus, you may notice that leaning forward or moving your head causes the pain and pressure to worsen.

Other symptoms of a sinus infection include:

  • A cough that produces mucus
  • Bad breath
  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Pain in your teeth
  • Reduced sense of taste or smell

How long does a sinus infection last?

How long a sinus infection lasts depends on which type of infection you have – acute or chronic.

Acute sinus infections

Acute sinus infections come on suddenly and can be caused by a virus or bacteria. An acute sinus infection caused by a virus is the most common type of a sinus infection, and it typically clears up on its own. It can take up to four weeks to recover completely, but your symptoms will begin to clear up after about seven days.

An acute sinus infection caused by bacteria lingers longer and will likely need medical treatment to heal. Symptoms of a bacterial sinus infection can last for 10 days or more but go away quickly once you get treatment.

Chronic sinus infections

A chronic sinus infection is an infection that lasts long-term, usually for 12 weeks or longer. They can be caused by bacterial infections that aren’t treated or fungal infections. Chronic sinus infections are more complicated to treat, and they won’t go away on their own.

How do I get rid of a sinus infection?

Sinus infections are very treatable. Depending on your infection, at-home treatments or medical care might work best for you.

How to treat a sinus infection at home

Many sinus infections go away on their own. You can try some of these treatments at home to help you manage your symptoms and feel more comfortable.

  • Press a warm, moist towel to your face for 5-10 minutes every day. This can help reduce swelling and pain.
  • Drink lots of water and other fluids. This can help thin your mucus and reduce congestion.
  • Breathe in warm, humid air. Using a humidifier helps, or you can take a hot shower or bath.
  • Try clearing your nasal passages with a saline solution (saltwater). A saline wash helps clear your nasal packages and reduces congestion. You can buy saline drops at your local pharmacy or make your own saline solution at home.
  • Over-the-counter pain medicine like Tylenol and Advil can help reduce pain and manage other symptoms, like a fever or headaches.

Medications for a sinus infection

Sometimes, your sinus infection won’t go away without care from your primary care doctor or otolaryngologists (ENT doctors). Most bacterial sinus infections can be cured with the help of antibiotic medicines – a type of medicine that kills bacteria. Antibiotics will help you feel better after a couple days, but it’s important to finish the entire amount that your doctor prescribed.

When is sinus surgery needed?

In some chronic or more complex cases, your doctor might recommend sinus surgery . Surgery is used to remove swollen tissue, polyps, growths, fluid or other blockages that make it difficult for your sinuses to drain and heal.

Are sinus infections contagious?

A sinus infection caused by a virus is contagious. When you sneeze or cough, the virus can travel in droplets of moisture through the air. If another person breathes in the virus, they might develop a cold that turns into a sinus infection. In order to limit the spread of sinus infections, remember to cover your nose and mouth when you cough or sneeze. And wash your hands frequently to avoid leaving the virus on objects that you touch.

If your sinus infection is caused by a bacteria or fungus, it’s not contagious. But you should still wash your hands frequently and cover your nose and mouth when you cough and sneeze.

When to go to a doctor for a sinus infection?

An untreated sinus infection can turn into a chronic infection, so it’s important to see the doctor if your symptoms aren’t improving on their own. We recommend making an appointment with your doctor if:

  • Your symptoms haven’t improved after two days of at-home treatment
  • You have cold symptoms that last for 10 days
  • You have a fever of 101 degrees Fahrenheit or higher
  • You’re experiencing severe pain in the upper part of your face or your teeth
  • You have facial pain from the bridge of your nose to your lower eyelid
  • You notice thick and discolored mucus
  • You have mild face pain for a month or longer
  • Over-the-counter medicines no longer provide relief for headaches

Is online care an option?

Sinus infections can be diagnosed and treated safely through an online interview. You’re asked the same questions you’d hear at an office visit. Then you get a treatment plan to reduce pain and minimize symptoms so you can get back to your daily routine.

Visit virtuwell.com – an online clinic, available day and night. Certified nurse practitioners diagnose and treat more sinus infections than any other condition.