When you’re stuffed up, sneezing, and congested, and just plain not feeling well, how do you know what’s ailing you? Especially when the flowers are blooming and you’re feeling under the weather, how can you be sure? For the uninformed, the symptoms between a common cold, allergies and sinus infections may appear similar.
Knowing exactly what you are suffering from can help you receive the proper medication and treatment to relieve your symptoms as soon as possible and help prevent them from reoccurring in the future.
“The main difference between the three conditions is the duration of symptoms and the type of symptoms,” says Hao “Mimi” Tran, M.D., F.A.C.S., a board-certified otolaryngologist at the Ear, Nose, Throat & Plastic Surgery Associates. Below, she breaks down the key differences between allergies, the common cold, and sinus infections and shares her insights so you can make informed empowered treatment decisions.
The Common Cold
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimate that 22 million school days are lost each year due to the common cold. And nearly one billion colds affect the U.S. population as a whole. More than 200 viral strains can bring about a cold, the most prevalent being the rhinovirus, known to cause roughly 50% of all common colds.
Most often, people catch a cold from direct physical contact with someone else infected with the virus. They may also rub something containing germs like a phone, a fork, or coins and then touch their mouth, nose, or eyes. Viral bacteria released into the air by a cough or sneeze can also trigger a cold by breathing them in through the airways.
“Typically a cold will come on fairly quickly, it will peak in one to three days, and resolve in about five to seven days,” says Dr. Tran. “A cold’s symptoms are characterized by a lot of nasal congestion, thick clear or discolored drainage, and maybe a fever. But patients are usually better in five to seven days without antibiotic therapy.”
Other symptoms of the common cold include:
- A sore throat
- Watery, sensitive eyes
- Mild headaches
Sinus infections, or sinusitis, are responsible for many visits to an ear, nose, and throat doctor’s office and impact over 30 million people every year.
The sinuses are air-filled cavities in the skull lined with moist mucous membranes like the inner lining of the mouth. The sinuses secrete mucus continuously. Sinus inflammation can arise from a virus or bacteria. During a sinus infection, mucus production spins out of control, thickens, and can clog the nose and sinuses, causing congestion and pressure.
Acute bacterial sinusitis, which usually lasts less than one month is characterized by severe symptoms including:
- Nasal congestion
- Facial pressure
- Nasal discharge with a different smell
- Dental pain
According to Dr. Tran, the key difference between a sinus infection and the common cold is the duration and quality of the symptoms. “When it comes to differentiating a cold from a bacterial sinus infection that might need antibiotics, it’s really about the duration,” says Dr. Tran. “A sinus infection is characterized by symptoms that last more than 10 days, or if you have symptoms that initially improve but then worsen again within the first 7 days (‘double-worsening’). This normally indicates the presence of a bacterial infection that would benefit from antibiotic treatment.”
Allergies are a widespread ailment that affects about 50 million children and adults in the United States and are the fifth leading cause of disease. Florida recently unseated Texas for the no. 1 highest allergy count by state in the U.S.
The most common allergens include:
- Pollen and plants
- Certain medications
- Animal dander
- Dust mites
- Insect bites
- Certain foods (eggs, dairy products, peanuts, and shellfish)
Allergies come about when your immune system sounds the alarm and attacks innocent allergens, something that usually is harmless, such as plant pollen, dust mites, molds, insect stings or food, that it should not. With an allergen reacts with your body, your system discharges antibodies warning that a threat needs to be neutralized. Histamines and other chemicals are sent out to deal with the situation, leading to an unpleasant allergic reaction.
“Allergies have a very common symptom profile, with symptoms of sneezing, clear runny nose, watery /itchy eyes and scratchy throat” says Dr. Tran. “Allergies usually have a well-known trigger — if you’ve been outdoors, around cats or other allergenic triggers. Unlike an infection, you don’t have a fever, discolored mucus, or a wet cough. ”
Symptoms can vary depending on the type of allergy and its severity and can range from mild to annoying, to serious and life-threatening.
Allergenic symptoms for nasal allergies can include:
- Itchy, watery eyes
- Runny nose
- Feeling unwell or sick
Why do allergies occur? Many scientists believe that allergies developed because we are now too clean, known as the “clean hygiene theory.” Part of the immune system that used to fight against parasites is now directed towards other innocent substances, or allergens, as exposure to parasites has significantly decreased with improved food sanitation and protective skin barriers.
Some inhalant or airborne allergies can last year-round depending if you’re allergic to dust mites or mold, but sometimes they can be more seasonal with trees, pollen, and grasses. Unfortunately, Florida has a climate with high humidity that allows for the proliferation of molds and dust mites, which can cause nasal congestion and have a significant impact on the overall sense of well being and sleep.
Treatment options are broad and include avoidance precautions, medications and immunotherapy to desensitize the immune system against the offending allergen. Immunotherapy is the only treatment that addresses the issue at the root cause, by trying to prevent the immune system from mounting a response to the allergenic trigger. Traditionally, desensitization therapy is given in the form of shots over the course of 3-5 years, but now there is an option for drops that can be administered daily by the patient under the tongue. Sublingual immunotherapy can save the patient time, is considered equally effective compared to allergy shots and has a very strong safety profile. At the ear, nose throat and plastic surgery associates, both allergy shots and drops are offered and can be tailored to each individual patient.