How to Know When a Cold Has Turned Into a Sinus Infection

How do you know when that sinus pain is a sinus infection?. Cecile Lavabre/Photographer's Choice/Getty Images

Sinus infections are one of the most common complications or secondary infections that occur after a cold. Many people get them but it can be difficult to tell when a regular cold has turned into a sinus infection. Gone are the days of calling it a sinus infection based solely on the color of your mucus. We know now that mucus can turn yellow and green even due to viral infections, not just due to secondary bacterial infections.

It also turns out not all sinus infections need to be treated with antibiotics - many of them go away on their own. So how do you know whether or not you have one and what you should do about it?

What Is a Sinus Infection?

A sinus infection - or sinusitis - is an infection and inflammation in the sinuses. Sinuses are located in the bones of the face, around your nose and eyes. When you get sick with a respiratory infection like a cold, your body may produce a lot of mucus in your sinuses. Sinusitis simply means an inflammation (redness and swelling) of the sinuses. This can occur due to the presence of viruses, bacteria, fungus or even allergens. In fact, people with allergies and asthma are more likely to get sinus infections because of the frequent irritation in the sinuses.

Sometimes, the mucus in your sinuses starts growing bacteria that shouldn't be there. This occurs when you already have mucus present due to a cold or allergies.

The bacteria grows and causes a secondary infection - a sinus infection.

Symptoms of a sinus infection include:

  • Pain in the face - often worsens when you lean forward
  • Congestion with thick mucus
  • Sore throat
  • Cough
  • Fever (occasionally)
  • Post nasal drip - may taste bad
  • Bad breath

If you have the above symptoms and they have persisted for longer than 1-2 weeks, you may have a sinus infection.

If you have congestion but have only been sick for a few days or a week, it is probably not sinusitis.

When Should You Go to the Doctor?

Not all sinus infections need to be treated with a prescription or require a visit to see your healthcare provider. If you have been dealing with your symptoms for longer than two weeks and haven't found relief using over the counter decongestants, saline nasal rinses, and pain relievers, it is time to consider contacting your doctor.

If you are diagnosed with a sinus infection, you may or may not be prescribed antibiotics. Recent studies have shown that only about 2% of sinusitis are actually caused by bacterial infections. A vast majority are caused by viruses and antibiotics do not treat viruses. If your health care provider chooses not to use antibiotics, do not push for them. Try the recommended treatment and contact her again if your symptoms have not improved after several days. Taking antibiotics when they aren't absolutely necessary has led to a massive antibiotic resistance problem in the United States.

Other treatments that may be suggested include pain relievers, decongestants, nasal sprays, allergy medications (if your symptoms were caused by allergies), warm compresses to the affected area, nasal saline spray or rinse and humidifiers or vaporizers.

There are several different categories of sinusitis: acute (lasts up to 4 weeks), subacute (lasts 4 to 12 weeks), chronic (lasts more than 12 weeks and can continue for months or years), recurrent (several repeated cases during one year). We are focusing on acute sinusitis here but your health care provider can determine which type you are dealing with.


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