visibily sick woman in a bath robe surrounded by tissues suffers ailment reclined in a chair

Is it a cold or sinus infection — and am I contagious?

You wake up with a runny nose, headache, tenderness under your eyes and around your nose and maybe a cough. Is it a cold or is it a sinus infection?

Colds can progress into a sinus infection as they both are caused by a virus. But there are times where bacteria can cause a sinus infection.

It’s important to know the difference, said Melinda Cooling, vice president of advanced practice providers at OSF HealthCare and chief clinician executive for OSF Saint Gabriel Digital Health.

What is a sinus infection?

A sinus infection, or sinusitis, occurs when the air-filled pockets in the face, called sinuses, fill up with fluid, inflaming the sinus lining and preventing them from draining. The trapped mucus can allow bacteria to grow, which leads to an infection, Melinda said.

Factors that can increase the risk of a sinus infection include:

  • Allergies
  • Smoking
  • Structural problems with the sinuses
  • A recent cold

Symptoms of a sinus infection

female officer worker blowing her nose at her cubicleCommon symptoms of sinus infections may include:

  • Runny nose or cold symptoms that last longer than seven to 10 days
  • Complaints of drip in the throat from the nose
  • Headaches
  • Facial pain
  • Bad breath
  • Cough
  • Fever
  • Sore throat
  • Swelling around the eyes, worse in the morning

How are sinus infections treated?

“Many sinus infections caused by a virus will resolve on their own without any treatment with antibiotics,” Melinda said. “This is important because if you don’t need antibiotics, it’s better not to take them as they can cause side effects and long-term resistance. An infection caused by bacteria, however, will likely require antibiotics.

“Sometimes your health care provider may ask you to take over-the-counter medications to help your symptoms and monitor your condition further.”

Examples of over-the-counter medication include:

  • Saline nasal spray
  • Decongestant
  • Acetaminophen or ibuprofen for pain relief
  • A warm compress on your nose and forehead to relieve sinus pressure

When to seek medical care

“You need to seek medical care if your symptoms are severe, such as a severe headache or facial pain, if your symptoms get worse after improving initially, if symptoms last longer than 10 days with no improvement or if you experience a fever longer than three to four days,” Melinda said.

Are sinus infections contagious?

“Because many times sinus infections are caused by viruses, they can be contagious like other infections, such as colds,” Melinda said. “If you have a sinus infection, it’s important to use good hygiene skills. Wash your hands, sneeze and cough into the nook of your elbow and use disinfectant wipes to clean everyday touched items like light switches and doorknobs. And try to keep your distance from your healthy family members during the short time when you may be contagious.”

How to prevent a sinus infection

“Prevention is really the key,” she said. “Staying healthy by drinking plenty of fluids, getting adequate rest, decreasing stress and washing your hands are all good preventive steps.”

Make sure you get recommended vaccines such as the flu vaccine. Also, don’t smoke and avoid secondhand smoke. And avoid close contract with others who have colds or other upper respiratory infections, Melinda said.

Getting care quickly

You can quickly get your sinus infection diagnosed using one of our convenient urgent care options or 24/7 virtual care with OSF OnCall.

Last Updated: November 5, 2020

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About Author: Lisa Coon

Lisa Coon is a Writing Coordinator for OSF HealthCare, where she has worked since August 2016.  A Peoria native, she is a graduate of Bradley University with a degree in journalism. Previously, she worked as a reporter and editor at several newspapers in Iowa and Illinois.

She lives in Groveland with her husband and son. In her free time she likes to cook, bake and read. She freely admits that reality TV is a weakness, and she lives by the quote, “The beach is good for the soul.”

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