man holds the bridge of his nose in obvious pain

Sinus infection or COVID-19?

Overlapping symptoms can make it difficult to determine if you have a sinus infection (sinusitis) or COVID-19. These issues are compounded when we spend long hours indoors due to the weather or quarantines.

“While both can cause fever, headache, nasal congestion and sore throat, there are some differences between the two,” said Melinda Cooling, vice president of Advanced Practice for OSF HealthCare and chief clinician executive for OSF OnCall.

Sinusitis vs. COVID-19

man with a cold holds a filled mug next to a tablet, cellphone and a pile of tissues

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, Cooling said.

Although you can get sinusitis year around, it tends to accompany the cold and influenza seasons during the fall and winter months.

“During those months, people spend more time inside with allergens,” Melinda said. “One difference is sinusitis tends to take longer, around 10 days, to develop into a bacterial infection, while COVID-19 will come on more quickly.”

Symptoms of a sinus infection

Common 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 or pressure
  • Bad breath
  • Cough
  • Fever
  • Sore throat
  • Swelling around the eyes, worse in the morning

“COVID-19 causes more of a dry cough, loss of taste and smell, and, typically, more respiratory symptoms,” Melinda said. “Sinusitis causes more discomfort in the face, congestion, nasal drip, and facial pressure.”

Symptoms for COVID-19

Common symptoms of a COVID-19 infection may include:

  • Body aches
  • Congestion or runny nose
  • Cough
  • Fatigue
  • Fever or chills
  • Headache
  • Nausea, vomiting or diarrhea
  • New loss of taste or smell
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Sore throat

“Symptoms can be similar, but there are subtle differences. That’s why it is important to limit your exposure to others if you have any symptoms,” Melinda said. “After your symptoms have substantially improved or resolved, you can resume your normal activities.

“The most important piece of advice at this point in time is to stay within your family unit and limit exposure.”

What you can do

  • Keep chronic diseases under control
  • Keep your hands away from your eyes, nose and mouth
  • Stay current on your vaccines
  • Wash your hands frequently

Melinda recommends only using reputable resources such as the CDC, OSF HealthCare or your primary care provider anytime you have questions or concerns about an illness.

Last Updated: December 22, 2023

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About Author: David Pruitt

David Pruitt is a writer for the Marketing & Communications division of OSF HealthCare. He has a bachelor’s of journalism from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and worked as a reporter before joining OSF HealthCare in 2014.

An avid golfer and fisherman, David was born and raised Alton, Illinois, which is where he currently resides with his son, James.

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Categories: COVID-19