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Allergies vs. Sinus Infection- How to tell the difference?

Alyssa Orcuilo07 Jun 2021

Quick Digest:

  • Allergies occur when your body's immune system reacts to a foreign substance. Sinusitis or a sinus infection is an inflammation or swelling of the tissue lining the sinuses.
  • Sinusitis usually happens after you've had a cold or allergies. Allergies can occur at any time of year. While some may be "seasonal," which is when you get them only in the spring or fall, or they may be year-round.
  • You should seek medical attention if you are having trouble breathing, any of the signs or symptoms are particularly severe.

What causes allergies?

Allergies occur when your body's immune system reacts to a foreign substance.

Pollen, bee venom, or pet dander, or a certain food(s), are some of the most popular allergies.

Your immune system produces substances known as antibodies. When a person has allergies, the immune system makes antibodies that identify a particular allergen as harmful, while it isn't. 

When in contact with the allergen, your immune system's reaction may cause inflamed skin, sinuses, airways, or digestive system.

The severity of allergies ranges from person to person, from minor irritation to anaphylaxis, which is a life-threatening emergency. Most allergies can't be cured, however, treatments can help relieve your allergy symptoms.

What causes a sinus infection?

Sinusitis or a sinus infection is an inflammation or swelling of the tissue lining the sinuses. 

Healthy sinuses are filled with air, but when they become blocked and filled with fluid, germs can grow and cause an infection.

Conditions that can cause sinus blockage may include:

  • The common cold
  • Allergic rhinitis, which is swelling of the lining of the nose caused by allergens
  • Small growths in the lining of the nose called nasal polyps
  • A deviated septum, which is a shift in the nasal cavity

Symptoms of allergies vs. a sinus infection

Allergies vs. Sinus infection

SymptomAllergiesSinus Infection
Thick colored mucusPossibleLikely
Stuffy noseLikelyLikely
SneezingLikelyPossible
CoughingPossibleLikely (from post-nasal drip)
HeadachePossibleLikely
FeverNot likely Slight fever possible
Swollen feeling in your facePossiblePossible
Watery or itchy eyesPossibleNot likely

Differences in symptoms

If you have allergies, you'll start feeling symptoms soon after you come into contact with the stuff you're allergic to. Your symptoms keep up as long as you're still surrounded by the allergen.

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Allergies can occur at any time of year. While some may be "seasonal," which is when you get them only in the spring or fall, or they may be year-round. For instance, an allergy to pets or mold would be a problem no matter the season.

Sinusitis, however, usually happens after you've had a cold or allergies. Some symptoms will linger, even after your cold goes away. You may have a stuffy nose and cough for more than a week or two.

There are two kinds of sinusitis: "acute" and "chronic." If your symptoms last less than 4 weeks, it's acute. If they go on for 3 months or longer, you have chronic sinusitis.

How to treat allergies or a sinus infection? 

Treating allergies

When dealing with allergies, the first thing you may turn to in order to ease the symptoms are decongestants or antihistamines. They're the most common treatments, and they help to ease a stuffy or runny nose, sneezing, and itching. Your doctor may also suggest corticosteroids, meds that reduce inflammation.

If you are dealing with seasonal or year-round allergies, a long-term solution may be needed. Some people begin their allergy medication before their allergy season begins.

Some doctors also recommend allergy shots. For around 3 to 5 years, you would receive regular injections of a small amount of whatever kicks off your allergic reaction, similar to how a vaccine works. This will help your body develop an "immunity" and will have less and less of a reaction to your allergy trigger.

Treating a sinus infection

Antihistamines can help treat a sinus infection. You can also try nasal decongestant sprays, but you should use them for only 3-4 days. 

After that, you could get what's called the "rebound" effect, which means your symptoms start to get worse rather than better in between dosing so you'll feel the need to use more and more of the decongestant nasal spray.

Another option to consider are nasal sprays that have corticosteroids. However, it can take several weeks to experience the full benefits. 

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Humidifiers, salt-water rinse, or hot packs are other natural solutions that may help your symptoms.

If your sinusitis is caused by bacteria, your doctor may put you on a round of antibiotics. You may take them anywhere from 3-28 days.

How to prevent allergies and sinus infections?

The best way to prevent allergies to avoid your allergies. However, sometimes coming in contact with allergens is inevitable. Here are some ways to avoid allergies:

  • Take your allergy medication as prescribed
  • Know what an allergic reaction looks like and what to do in the event
  • Keep your epinephrine auto-injectors with you at all times, if applicable

The best ways to prevent a sinus infection include:

  • Frequently washing your hands.
  • Keeping the nose moist with nasal saline sprays
  • Avoid nasal irritants such as pollution, smoke
  • Irrigate your sinuses on a regular basis (from once a day to once a week for some) with a saline sinus wash

When should I seek medical attention?

Allergies: You should seek medical attention if you are having trouble breathing, any of the signs or symptoms are particularly severe, such as loss of consciousness or difficulty breathing, or if different parts or systems of the body are involved, such as having the combination of hives and vomiting.

Sinus infection: You should make an appointment with your doctor if you have a fever, nasal discharge, congestion, or facial pain that lasts longer than ten days or keeps coming back.

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Sources:

https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/allergies/symptoms-causes/syc-20351497

https://www.webmd.com/allergies/sinusitis-or-allergies

https://www.healthline.com/health/cold-flu/sinus-infection-symptoms#when-to-see-your-doctor

https://www.aafa.org/prevent-allergies/

https://blogs.bcm.edu/2014/06/25/ten-tips-to-avoid-sinus-infections/