Do You Have a Virus or a Sinus Infection?

Getting sick during the winter is almost a given. Determining whether your sore throat, sneezing and runny nose are caused by a cold, sinus infection or the flu is important, as each requires a different treatment approach.

By the Numbers

Man sneezing into a tissue

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Americans adults have two to three colds a year; children have even more.

Nearly 29 million Americans experience sinusitis, or sinus infections, each year.

The CDC estimates that influenza has resulted in 9 million to 45 million cases of illness, 140,000 to 810,000 hospitalizations and 12,000 to 61,000 deaths annually since 2010.

How to Tell the Difference

The main difference between a cold, the flu and a sinus infection is how long the symptoms last.

A Cold

The common cold is caused by a viral infection. Nasal congestion and a runny nose, the most common symptoms, typically last three to seven days.

A Sinus Infection

A sinus infection occurs when fluid builds up in the air-filled pockets within the skull, known as your sinuses, allowing germs to grow. Both bacteria and viruses can cause a sinus infection. Symptoms include nasal obstruction, discolored nasal discharge, facial pain and pressure and a reduced sense of smell. Contrary to popular belief, the color of your nasal discharge does not change depending on the cause of your symptoms. Both a bacterial and a viral infection can cause your discharge to become green or yellow.

Dr. Jessica Grayson, an assistant professor at the University of Alabama’s Birmingham Department of Otolaryngology, confirms that many people confuse sinus infections for sinus pressure.

“When people say they have sinus pressure, they may mean nasal congestion,” Grayson explained. “Bilateral congestion could mean a person has a viral infection or an allergic reaction. Viral infections don’t pick and choose a side.”

“If your sinus pressure is isolated, you might have a bacterial infection,” she said. “That’s when you really should go see a doctor. With a virus, you just have to let it run its course.”


The main difference between a cold and the flu is a fever. It is common for those with the flu to have a fever of 100 degrees Fahrenheit or higher for three to five days. Additional symptoms include:

  • Fatigue
  • Nasal congestion
  • Runny nose

Preventing Illness

Exposure to cold and flu germs is unavoidable. There are some things you can do to reduce your risk of getting sick.

Getting your annual flu shot is the single best way to protect yourself. The vaccine helps build up your immune system to fight off the virus. Anyone older than six months should get the vaccine, including women who are pregnant.

Washing your hands with soap and water is a key to illness prevention. When a sink is not available, an alcohol-based hand sanitizer is recommended. Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth in public and wash your hands as soon as possible.

Limit your contact with others when you are sick. Stay home for at least 24 hours after your fever is gone (without the use of fever reducing medication).

Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. Immediately throw the tissue away and wash your hands.

If you’ve been suffering from nasal congestion and a runny nose, now is the time to seek help. Contact the experts at Nevada Ear + Sinus Institute to get relief.