How can you tell whether you have a cold or a sinus infection? Well, it depends on how long certain symptoms last. A runny nose, puffy eyes and headaches are typical of a common cold. If you’re not up and about in approximately 2 weeks, the congestion has most likely infected your sinuses.

Did you know that sinusitis is one the most prevalent human conditions? About 1 in 7 of the US population is affected by the chronic form of the disease!

The word ‘infection’ sounds scary and serious. It can be, but not if it’s spotted on time and managed before it gets out of hand.


What do the sinuses do exactly?

Sinuses are essential structures within the skull. They perform a variety of noteworthy functions such as:

  • They lighten the skull
  • Improve voice and help in voice resonance
  • Help filter the air through the nasal passages by producing a thin lining of mucus
  • Add moisture to the air in the nasal passages
  • Act as buffers against facial trauma


Where are the sinuses in your head?

The sinuses are hollow, air-filled cavities inside the skull that are interconnected. There are four pairs of sinuses:

  • Frontal sinus (front part of forehead)
  • Maxillary sinus (behind the cheekbones)
  • Ethmoid sinus (in between the eyes)
  • Sphenoid sinus (further behind the ethmoid)

There is another sinus called the ‘cavernous sinus’ within the human head and comprises of blood instead of air. It is a venous sinus in the brain and carries several important cranial nerves and arteries. Infections from the face have the potential to reach the cavernous sinus through intricate connections between it and the smaller blood vessels in the face.

Is a nasal and sinus infection the same thing?

A nasal infection occurs when the nasal sinuses become infected, inflamed and swollen. So yes, it is essentially the same thing. Some experts say that even though a cold isn’t a primary cause, it does serve as a potent breeding ground for a sinus infection. Bacterial contamination occurs from the constant rubbing and wiping of the nose with your hands. Since the sinuses are stuffed and congested with mucus, they are unable to drain. Hence, they have no choice but to harbor the bacteria.

What causes sinusitis?

Sinus infections are usually caused by viruses and generally attack the upper respiratory tract. It begins with symptoms that are similar to a cold. In some cases, bacteria or fungi (rare) may cause a sinus infection as well. Other conditions that may augment sinus pain include:

  • Nasal polyps
  • Allergies
  • Tooth infections.

In fact, the sinus infection-toothache combo can go both ways. Pre-existing tooth infections can contribute to sinus pain or sinus inflammation and swelling can cause toothache. The upper pre-molars and molars are seen to be affected due to their close proximity with the sinuses.


Symptoms of a sinus infection

Most physicians are in agreement that the presence of facial pain, nasal discharge and congestion are necessary to diagnose a sinus infection. Acute sinusitis can last up to 4 weeks whereas chronic infections can last up to 12 weeks!

Other symptoms include:

  • Pain and pressure in the forehead and behind or in between the eyes. Pain is one of the primary symptoms of sinusitis is usually associated with a feeling of heaviness or weight in the head. Swelling and inflammation of the sinuses can refer pain to your upper jaw, teeth and even ears.


  • Headaches are a common feature of sinus infections resulting from the pain and pressure. They can be throbbing, dull or pulsating in nature. Often worse in the mornings due to the overnight accumulation of mucus.


  • Difficult breathing: Nasal congestion involves swelling of the nasal passages preventing the influx of air. The sense of taste and smell are also affected in some and your voice may acquire a ‘stuffy’ tone.


  • Irritation of the throat caused by post nasal dripping. Most commonly seen at night when the fluid trickles from the nasal passages into the throat. It can be a real nuisance and provoke coughing, possibly compromising your sleep as well!  Your throat may feel goaded with a pins and needles sensation. That’s the worse!


  • Hoarseness of voice is caused by the continuous prodding of post nasal drip. The throat can become scratchy and affect your ability to phonate or speak resulting in a husky pitch.


  • Bad breath or halitosis may also occur due to the bacteria.

What is the best way to treat a sinus infection?

There isn’t a one-for-all treatment for sinusitis. It involves a multi-management. Acute infections sometimes referred to as the ‘sinus cold’ are treated with a simple course of antibiotics. Chronic cases however may warrant the following measures to alleviate discomfort and pain:

  • Nasal decongestants open up the nasal passages by reducing inflammation and swelling. They should be used no longer than a few days as its effects can ‘rebound’ and swelling may recur. Nasal sprays, steroid and saline sprays are also recommended.


  • A thorough sinus rinse or sinus irrigation with saline solution will clear the airway and help you breathe better. Saline solutions are available for this purpose and can be administered by a syringe.


  • In case of allergy associated sinusitis, antihistamines can be useful by calming the runny nose and watery eyes


  • Applying warm packs or hot sponging the face can have a soothing effect on the sinus pain and liquify the mucus so it can drain from the nasal passages.


  • Surgery is the last resort if the symptoms don’t seem to be resolving. Functional endoscopic sinus surgery (FESS) may be recommended by your physician. It is a procedure in which an endoscope (tiny wire-guided camera) is inserted inside your nose and mucus is drained from your sinuses.


If you are experiencing any of the symptoms mentioned above it is best you visit your primary health care provider. Or if your symptoms don’t seem to be improving and you have queries feel free to seek expert medical advice online.


The next time you have the allergies, a cold, or sinusitis, remember the 3 Ws:

W- wait it out

W- water it

W- wave it goodbye!


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