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Do you have a stuffy nose? Sore throat? Cough? It’s a pretty common story, and lots of winter illnesses could fit the bill. You may be asking yourself if you have a cold or a sinus infection, but did you know that you could have both?

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December 10, 2018

Colds and sinus infections are two partners in crime (and sickness) that can leave you reaching for your hot tea and tissues.

When the weather turns cold, we begin watching out for evidence that the normal culprits of winter illness are coming. A cold or the flu often brings a runny nose, sore throat, or headache. . Many winter illnesses, like a cold and sinus infections, share symptoms, and it can be difficult to determine exactly which sickness you’re facing. It gets even harder when they gang up on you, like when a cold becomes a sinus infection. To help ward off these villains of winter, we’re sharing their sickness profiles – because shouldn't it be a crime for these ailments to join forces? We think so!

The Common Cold

a woman sitting on a couch wrapped in a blanket holding a cup of tea

Colds (No. 1 on the winter illness least wanted list) can actually be caused by several different viruses with long technical names that are hard to pronounce – rhinovirus, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), human parainfluenza virus, adenovirus, human coronaviruses, human metapneumovirus. What do they have in common? All of them are guilty of causing colds. The usual suspects…oops, we mean symptoms of a cold include:

  • Sore throat
  • Runny nose
  • Sneezing
  • Stuffy nose
  • Mild fever in children (101-102 degrees Fahrenheit)
  • Mild achiness
  • Coughing
  • Watery eyes 

The common cold lives up to its name – this illness affects millions of people in the U.S each year. To put it in perspective, that’s about two to three colds per year for adults, and even more for children.1 So the odds are very good that you’ve encountered - and defeated - a common cold.

When you catch a cold, symptoms usually take effect gradually. One day, it’s a slight sniffle at the office and two days later you wake up with a cough you just can’t shake. While a cold typically peaks in one or two days, it can last for up to two weeks. Because it’s caused by viruses, a cold cannot be cured by antibiotics, but there are some cold remedies that can relieve some of your symptoms and kick this seasonal scoundrel to the curb: 

  • Rest – learn about the importance of R&R time 
  • Drink plenty of fluids – and for additional reading, check out our blog on the best foods to eat when you're sick
  • Use saline sprays or nasal rinses 
  • Gargle warm salt water
  • Use a cool mist vaporizer/humidifier 
  • Take ibuprofen or acetaminophen to help ease aches and reduce fever. Before starting a new medication, consult your healthcare provider to determine if taking these medications are appropriate for you.

See a medical professional if your cold symptoms are severe or unusual, if they last more than 10 days, or if a child under three months has a fever or is lethargic.

Sinus Infections

a woman lying on a couch pinching the skin between her eyes with tissues beside her

It’s bad enough to have a lingering cold, but to make matters worse, all that stuffiness can actually trigger another common culprit – the sinus infection. Did you know that 90 percent of patients with a cold have some level of viral sinusitis – making these two true partners in crime. If congestion from a cold causes mucus to get backed up, you can develop a sinus infection. This means that the cavities behind your cheekbones, eyes, and forehead are affected too. 

Sounds, well, just plain criminal, right?

Thankfully, if your sinus infection is caused by bacteria, it isn’t contagious. Acute sinusitis is when your cold brings on a sinus infection. And because other illnesses, like flu, can lead to sinusitis, it’s the most frequent diagnosis at MedExpress. More than 14 percent of people in the U.S. get sinusitis in a year, with most cases being a result of another illness.2

Both your age and the severity of your sinus infection affect treatment. Most sinus infections are viral, and unlike bacterial sinusitis, will not respond to antibiotics. Viral sinus infections, like bacterial sinus infections, aren’t contagious, but the virus causing the illness—like a cold or flu—is. However, these viral sinus infections mostly clear up without a prescription. If you have multiple sinus infections in one year, symptoms like a severe headache or facial pain, or symptoms that get worse after initially improving or last more than 10 days without improvement, you should visit a provider for evaluation.1

In the meantime, here are some ways to get relief from a sinus infection:

  • Use a warm compress on your face to relieve sinus pressure.
  • Breathe steam from a bowl of hot water or shower, or use a vaporizer or humidifier to alleviate discomfort.
  • Try a nasal rinse to help relieve pressure and congestion.
  • Use a decongestant, saline nasal spray, Ibuprofen, or acetaminophen to help lessen the pain. But as always, consult your healthcare provider before starting a new medication to determine if taking these medications are appropriate for you.

It’s bad enough to get a nasty cold, but no one wants to add a sinus infection to the culprit list. If you have a lingering cold, or another respiratory illness, your MedExpress provider is here to help. Why wait to feel better? 

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References: 

1 National Center for Biotechnology Information: Sinusitis. Last updated January 29, 2018. Accessed October 18, 2018.

2 CDC: Common Colds: Protect Yourself and Others. Last updated February 12, 2018. Accessed October 11 2018.

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