Cold vs. Sinus Infection

11/21/2022 | Dr. Scott Kramer

Cold vs. Sinus Infection

Your child's nose starts to feel congested. Their throat gets that scratchy feeling. Perhaps they develop a sinus headache, or their mucus turns green. Does this sound familiar? Often parents wonder if these symptoms mean their child has a common cold or if a sinus infection is developing. Many parents probably don’t know there is a difference. This article is meant to help clarify some questions you may have about the common cold versus bacterial sinusitis.

Viral upper respiratory infections (URIs), better known as “colds,” are the most common infectious diseases on earth. These illnesses are caused by viruses with particles so small they can’t be seen with even the most powerful light microscope. They are passed from person to person through “droplets” generated by coughing, sneezing, or wiping the nose or eyes. Viral particles can survive on hard surfaces such as door handles or railings for several hours. Symptoms of viral URIs include nasal congestion, sore throat, and feeling tired or generally ill. Once a viral URI starts, the goal of treatment is to relieve symptoms by using anti-inflammatory medication such as ibuprofen, nasal sprays, or salt water gargles. Cold symptoms usually last 5-7 days, and nothing has been proven to shorten their duration, so preventing an infection altogether is the best line of defense. Try to have your child avoid touching their face, nose, or eyes. Also make sure they are washing/sanitizing their hands frequently. These are the best means of prevention.

Bacterial sinusitis, better known as “sinus infections,” can look similar to colds because it also can cause congestion, facial pressure or pain, and sore throat. But there are some key differences. First, symptoms on one side of the face or nose only suggest a bacterial infection. Dental pain in the upper-teeth is more consistent with sinusitis, and low-grade fever can also occur. Often patients can start with a viral URI, get better after several days, and then get worse again because of a “secondary” bacterial infection. Treatment can either consist of symptomatic relief (see above paragraph) and close observation or with oral antibiotics.

Most important, the color of your nasal mucus (green, yellow, etc.) does NOT help differentiate between a cold or sinus infection. As always, you should talk to your pediatrician if you have questions about your child's specific care and what the best treatment options are.


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