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Allergies vs. Sinus Infection: How To Tell The Difference

Allergies and sinus infections can present similar symptoms. So, what how do you tell the difference between sinusitis and your allergies?

From a medical perspective, allergies occur when the body’s own immune system has a reaction to allergens and certain irritants we encounter. This can be triggered by pollen, pet, dander, or even grass. In contrast, sinus infections, also called sinusitis, occur due to a viral or bacterial cause. The symptoms in both can appear very similar. So, how to tell the difference? Let’s find out.

The Primary Difference

Sinusitis or sinus infections happen due to an infection in the sinuses. At Florida Sinus & Snoring Specialists, we have decades of experience treating such infections. There are four different sinus pairs in our bodies, and any of these can develop a sinus infection.

Acute Sinusitis and Chronic Sinusitis

Acute sinusitis is caused by an infection, usually a bacterial one. These types of sinusitis usually refer to temporary sinus infections and symptoms tend to disappear quickly after treatment begins. In contrast, chronic sinusitis symptoms can continue for over twelve weeks in cases where conventional treatments aren’t working.

People with allergies, a deviated nasal septum, and asthma are more prone to developing chronic sinusitis than acute sinusitis.


woman with allergy symptoms

Allergies are caused by a reaction from the person’s immune system. The immune system in people with allergies fights even a seemingly harmless substance like pet hair aggressively. This causes inflammation, sinus pain, coughing, sneezing, and congestion. If a person breathes an allergen, the sinuses become inflamed and the doctor may diagnose this as allergic rhinitis or hay fever.

Common allergens such as dander or dust can result in symptoms that could appear similar to that of sinusitis, but treatment protocols are different.

The Primary Difference

The largest difference between these conditions is in their treatment protocols. While the congestion and sinus pressure can be felt with either diagnosis, allergies are typically treated with an antihistamine, whereas sinusitis is often treated with an antibiotic or antiviral.

Similar Symptoms

Allergies and sinusitis both result in nasal passage swelling, runny nose, or nasal congestion. They can also cause facial pressure and headaches. Yet, there are subtle differences in the symptoms between the two. Sinusitis usually arrives after a bacterial or viral infection. In comparison, allergies often arrive due to seasonal changes or without warning.

Allergy Symptoms

Common symptoms of allergy include:

  • Symptoms appearing and disappearing at specific times during the year
  • Symptoms arriving only in particular situations such as around dogs
  • Watery or itchy eyes
  • Discharge from the nasal passage that is clear, thin or watery
  • Sneezing frequently

Sinusitis Symptoms

Common signs of acute sinusitis symptoms include:

  • Mucus thick in consistency with green or yellow color
  • Symptoms appearing unrelated to situations or locations
  • Pain occurring above teeth or in gums
  • Bad breath
  • Facial pressure that is intense
  • Reduced ability in taste or smell
  • Fever

How to Diagnose the Condition?

talking to doctor about how to ease sinus pain

A highly experienced medical professional such as Dr. Lee Mandel at Florida Sinus & Snoring Specialists can assess your problem accurately. Board-certified otolaryngologist and sinus specialist Dr. Mandel will help to diagnose your condition and prescribe the appropriate treatment depending on your unique case.

There are a few ways these conditions are diagnosed:

Allergy Diagnosis

Skin or blood tests are a common way to diagnose allergies. The care provider will also inquire about your medical history.

Sinusitis Diagnosis

The doctor will usually perform a physical examination first. Placing pressure on the sinuses, examining the nose, and collecting a sample of the nasal discharge are some common parts of examination and diagnosis.

They will ask about specific symptoms and also factor in your medical history. CT scans are sometimes used when diagnosing such conditions and your doctor may also recommend a nasal endoscopy.

Treatment for Allergies

The treatment plan for allergies will depend on the severity of symptoms as well as the allergen causing them. Common treatment modes include:

  • Antihistamines
  • Nasal steroids that reduce the inflammation
  • Decongestants
  • Oral steroids
  • Immunotherapy that exposes the client to small doses of the allergen to curtail the body’s reaction over time

Treatment for Sinusitis

Unblocking the nasal passages and sinuses, as well as addressing the root cause of the infection can relieve the symptoms associated with sinusitis. Some common treatments include:

  • Saline sprays that keep the nasal passage clean
  • Nasal corticosteroid sprays
  • Nasal strips to ensure easier breathing, especially during sleep
  • Antibiotics in case of bacterial infection
  • Surgical procedures in some cases of chronic sinusitis, to remove blockages within the nose or sinus that cause recurrent acute sinusitis

How to Know If Your Sinusitis is Bacterial or Viral

Sinuitis cases, whether viral or bacterial, can present very similar symptoms. It can be challenging to determine if the situation is due to bacterial or viral causes.

When to Know if Professional Help is Needed

Headache, fever, unusual mucus color, or bad breath are telltale indicators of an infection. These symptoms can manifest with most sinus infections as well. Simply describing your symptoms to your provider may not determine it accurately. This is why it’s critical to go to a professional to be evaluated when these symptoms present themselves.

Dr. Lee, at our Florida Sinus & Snoring Specialists has decades of experience, and will be able to place an accurate diagnosis on the cause and treatment for such conditions.

How to Prevent Allergies

While allergy sufferers may not be able to cure their conditions entirely, there are some measures they can take to ease or prevent their symptoms.

  • Avoiding any exposure to smoke, dust, and other irritants
  • Changing out of outside clothing as soon as you come in the house
  • Dusting and vacuuming regularly
  • Taking over-the-counter medications such as an antihistamine

How to Prevent Sinusitis

Chronic sinusitis can be prevented with a few simple tips!

  • Wash your hands regularly to reduce the chances of infection
  • Keep the nasal passages clean using nasal rinses

When to Visit Your Doctor?

Seasonal allergies and mild sinusitis do not typically constitute medical emergencies. However, in certain situations, if conditions are aggravated, seeing a doctor may be necessary. If you experience any of the symptoms below, it may be time to seek medical help:

  • Rash
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Heart rate changes
  • Throat swelling

If this is bacterial sinusitis, the infection can spread to other body areas, especially if timely medical help is not provided. Prompt treatment is essential in case of chills, confusion or fever after sinusitis is suspected.

Consult your doctor if:

  • Symptoms fail to disappear after one week.
  • Symptoms worsen even when using over-the-counter medications.
  • Prescription medication worsens symptoms or does not bring relief.

Difference Between Cold and Sinusitis

The difference between a cold or respiratory illness and sinusitis is not straightforward. The reason is the similarity in symptoms, which can make accurate detection difficult.

Knowing the Root Cause

Distinguishing between allergies, a cold and sinusitis often depends on identifying the root cause. Is it a virus, bacteria or allergens causing it?

  • Virus related sinusitis is often a common cold. The most common form of this is rhinovirus.
  • Allergens such as pollen, dander or dust can cause sinusitis or cold-like symptoms. These are often called allergic rhinitis or allergies. This is usually caused due to the person’s immune system overreactions to airborne allergens.
  • Bacteria can accumulate as a result of allergies or cold-related sinus buildup. This can result in bacterial sinusitis.


Knowing and measuring the duration of each of these conditions can help determine whether it’s a cold or sinusitis.

Cold Duration

A cold usually lasts anywhere between five and ten days, with the latter being the maximum duration. Symptoms generally escalate between the third and fifth day. However, a sinus infection lasts much longer, especially when left untreated. If your cold symptoms persist beyond ten days, it may be time to consult a specialist at Florida Sinus & Snoring Specialists.

Allergic Rhinitis Duration

The duration of allergic rhinitis will depend on exposure and how soon you can avoid the specific allergen causing this reaction. The rhinitis or allergy usually subsides once exposure to that allergen is avoided or a particular allergy treatment is started.

Bacterial Sinusitis Duration

If a bacterial sinusitis is allowed to persist without proper medication when you develop sinusitis, it can result in health complications. These can include snoring and sinus problems, as well as sleep apnea and sinusitis, or in severe cases, the infection becoming systemic.

How to Know if You Are Contagious

If this is an infectious disease you have caught, chances are it is a cold and not sinusitis. A virus-induced cold is contagious, and if a virus is the root cause of your sinusitis you would be contagious all the same. If the sinusitis is caused by a bacterial infection, your odds of infecting others are very low.

Effective Treatment Options

treatments for nasal stuffiness

The treatment for a sinus infection and cold are going to be vastly different. A seasonal cold is very common and it usually does not require medical treatment. However, a sinus infection left untreated can worsen and lead to other health conditions, and therefore it may require more intensive treatment.

In several situations, over-the-counter medication can help with sinus infections. With that said, if you have tried these, and it has not helped, it may be time to try a surgical procedure. These procedures are non-invasive and can generate results in a very short duration of time.

At Florida Sinus & Snoring Specialists, we offer the latest and most effective treatments and procedures to fit your specific infection or sinus condition perfectly. Dr. Lee has over two decades of experience and a unique personal touch that can help you with an appropriate treatment modality for best results.

Consult With a Board-Certified Otolaryngologist For Your Sinusitis and Allergy Symptoms

Allergies and sinus infections (sinusitis) often exhibit similar symptoms. Hence, proper detection and treatment can be tricky terrain, if not done by a professional. At Florida Sinus & Snoring Specialists, we have a dedicated team of sinus specialists who can diagnose sinusitis and prescribe the correct treatment. Dr. Mandel is highly knowledgeable and experienced in his field and can accurately determine which treatment will work best given your unique case and medical history.

If you are experiencing any of the following symptoms, it may be time to consult with us for sustainable relief and treatment:

  • Swollen and painful areas on your face or sinus passages
  • Thick mucus of a yellow or green color
  • Too much mucus
  • Abnormal sinus structures
  • Ear nose and throat infection
  • Bad breath
  • Tooth pain or sinus pain
  • Headaches
  • Fever
  • Fatigue
  • Sore throat
  • Incessant coughing

Call us at 954-983-1211 to request an appointment and start your customized treatment plan today! Relief is just around the corner here at Florida Sinus & Snoring Specialists.