Fall marks the end of summer, the start of school, and often the start of both cold and allergy season. While allergies and sinus infections have some similar symptoms, there are also a few key differences to know.
Sean Johnson, M.D., is a surgeon at Sanford Health Ear, Nose, and Throat Clinic in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Dr. Johnson said both can cause “nasal congestion, sneezing, a runny nose, postnasal drip, and a cough from postnasal drip.”
He added that it’s more common for allergies specifically to cause symptoms outside of the nose and sinuses.
“Things like itchy, runny eyes, puffiness under the eyes, fatigue and sometimes can contribute to lung disease exacerbations,” he said.
On the flip side, bacterial sinus infections tend to have symptoms more localized to the nose and face.
“Facial pressure pain, discolored drainage, and reduced sense of smell are more common with sinus infections.
“Sometimes it can be hard to distinguish between the two. Untreated or inadequately treated allergies can actually lead to bacterial sinus infections,” said Dr. Johnson.
Treatments for allergies vs. infections
As far as allergies go, over-the-counter medications like oral antihistamines (Claritin, Zyrtec, etc.) or nasal sprays will help, according to Dr. Johnson.
“Saline spray and saline irrigation can also be helpful to clean the nose and flush out allergens,” he added.
Dr. Johnson also explained that sinus infections often start as upper respiratory infections, and many of the same over-the-counter medications used for allergies can provide some relief.
“Oral decongestants such as pseudoephedrine and decongestant sprays such as oxymetazoline can also be helpful for symptoms control. It’s very important to follow packaging instruction and limit duration and dose to avoid side effects. Caution is recommended though as even over-the-counter medications are not appropriate for everyone and may cause side effects.
“It is important to remember the viral sinusitis, which causes the majority of sinus symptoms, will not improve with antibiotics and usually gets better with time,” he said.
When to see a specialist
Visiting an ENT (ear, nose, throat) specialist is warranted if you’re having sinus or nasal symptoms chronically (longer than six to eight weeks), or recurrent sinus problems (three to four a year). A specialist, like Dr. Johnson, can help you understand why the symptoms are occurring and what can be done to fix them.
Recurrent and chronic sinus issues are very rarely life threatening. However, chronic and recurrent sinusitis can have substantial impacts to quality of life.
“Fortunately, there are many treatment options which are highly successful at helping patients,” said Dr. Johnson.
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