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Do I Have a Cold, Sinus Infection or Allergies?

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Colds, Allergies or Sinus Infection?

It starts innocently enough—a tickle in the back of the throat; a sneeze or two; red, watery eyes; a stuffy nose that seems to get worse the more you blow. These symptoms are easy to ignore at first, but then the question becomes unavoidable: do I suffer from a cold, a sinus infection or allergies?

The differences may seem subtle, but it is important to distinguish between them so that the condition can be appropriately treated if necessary, or left alone to heal on its own.

A Cold

Contrary to popular belief, one does not catch a cold by being physically cold. Caused by a virus (most commonly rhinovirus or another viral species), a cold is transmitted via tiny droplets released into the air by a sneeze or a cough, or by way of a contaminated surface such as a doorknob, computer or phone. The virus attaches to the lining of the nose or throat which triggers the body's immune system to defend itself by releasing white blood cells, causing mucus to develop. The battle to fight off the virus-invader leaves the body feeling depleted, and the sufferer miserable.

The symptoms of a cold usually develop one to three days after exposure to a virus and can include:

  • Sore throat
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Post-nasal drip
  • Sneezing
  • Fatigue

What should I do about a cold?

There is no "cure" for a cold and antibiotics cannot treat it. A cold usually goes away on its own, running its course in about a week. Over-the-counter (OTC) medications can help relieve some of the symptoms and help the sufferer feel more comfortable. Seek medical attention if symptoms worsen after three days, or if you develop difficulty breathing, an earache, stiff neck, difficulty swallowing, or a fever of 101 degrees or higher.

A Sinus Infection

A sinus infection (sinusitis) occurs when nasal cavities become inflamed and infected, often beginning as a cold, allergy or some other irritant to the tissues of the sinuses. Sinusitis is usually not spread by contact between people and may be classified as acute (e.g., starts suddenly with cold-like symptoms and last 2-4 weeks) or chronic (e.g., lasts twelve weeks or longer).

Many of the symptoms of a sinus infection are the same as a cold, but may also include:

  • Discolored nasal discharge
  • Cough
  • Bad breath
  • Fever
  • Facial pain or pressure
  • Headache

Sneezing is not associated with a sinus infection.

What should I do about a sinus infection?

A sinus infection, when caused by bacteria, can be treated with prescription antibiotics. If a sinus infection is suspected, seek medical treatment by a primary care physician or at an Urgent Care center.


Allergies occur when the body's immune system reacts abnormally to a substance the body interprets as being harmful. This overreaction triggers the body to release chemicals that causes a response that can range from mild (sniffles) to life-threatening (anaphylaxis—a severe reaction marked by swelling, difficulty breathing and lowered blood pressure).

Allergies and the common cold share many symptoms such as sneezing, runny nose and nasal congestion. However, allergies and a cold differ in a few ways, such as:

  • Allergies can cause itchy eyes, nose, ears, and throat; a cold usually does not.
  • Allergies typically last only as long as the trigger (pollen, pet hair, foods, mold, dust, chemicals, etc.) is present. A cold runs its course in a week or so.
  • Allergies can cause wheezing and allergic skin reactions such as eczema and rashes (a cold can also cause wheezing in asthmatics and in people who have reactive airways).
  • Allergies often cause the mucous membranes inside the nose to be pale and swollen, whereas a cold will cause these membranes to be bright red. A physician can determine this by examination.

What should I do about allergies?

A stuffy nose caused by allergies can be relieved using OTC decongestants; however, Dr. Farber warns that decongestants can be dangerous to some people and should only be taken after consultation with a physician. OTC antihistamines can block the body's chemical reaction to allergens and help to relieve allergy symptoms. A physician can treat chronic or severe allergies with prescription medications and allergy shots.

Need treatment?

Your primary care provider (PCP) is your best resource for diagnosing and treating illness. If your symptoms are persisting and you are wondering whether you suffer from more than just a cold, seek care from a trusted healthcare provider.

Reserve an appointment at Doylestown Health Urgent Care

About Doylestown Health's Urgent Care

When non-life-threatening illness or injury just can't wait, there's Urgent Care. Staffed by Doylestown Health physicians, Urgent Care is open 365 days a year with extended hours, offering quick and convenient treatment to all ages. With electronic medical records that link Doylestown Health patients with Doylestown Health specialists, primary care physicians and Doylestown Hospital, your Urgent Care team can access health information in real time. Simply walk-in for treatment on your schedule. X-rays, sutures and common prescriptions are available on-site, allowing patients to get in and out and on and their way to healing – fast.

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