After a long winter, spring has arrived. The much-awaited warmer weather can bring at least one drawback: the start of allergy season.
When you develop congestion, a runny nose, a sore throat and itchy eyes, it could indicate allergies, a cold or the beginnings of a sinus infection.
“It can be sometimes difficult to tell them apart,” says Dr. Lance Grammont, a physician at ThedaCare Urgent Care-Appleton. “Colds and allergies each can cause a runny nose or congestion, sneezing and nasal pressure. They are different conditions, however, and a careful look at your symptoms often will provide clues as to which you’re suffering.”
Sorting the Symptoms
Nasal passages work to trap particles of dust, germs and other contaminants. When your nasal passages become infected, also called an upper respiratory tract infection or rhinosinusitis, inflammation causes the nasal passages to swell, preventing drainage and leading to mucus buildup.
You may become congested and have thick, yellowish or greenish nasal discharge, Dr. Grammont says. You might also have an accompanying sore throat, headache or cough. Viruses typically cause upper respiratory tract infections, and acute infections will normally dissipate on their own within 10 days.
With allergies, you might have cold-like symptoms, including a runny nose. However, an allergic response to substances in your surrounding environment — such as pet dander, pollen or dust mites — causes these symptoms. The condition, called allergic rhinitis, occurs when your immune system releases chemicals such as histamine into your bloodstream.
“One of the key clues you may be having an allergic reaction is you may have itchy, watery eyes accompanying your other symptoms,” Dr. Grammont says.
Timing can also be a factor. If you have seasonal allergies and your symptoms occur at a time when your area has a high prevalence of pollen or spores in the air, that’s another indicator that you may be suffering from allergic rhinitis. Similarly, you may see symptoms pop up in certain situations, such as visiting the home of a friend who has pets.
“The good news is there are over-the-counter treatments available for both allergic rhinitis and upper respiratory tract infections, and a lot of steps you can take to help relieve symptoms yourself,” Dr. Grammont says.
For upper respiratory tract infections, you can take over-the-counter pain relievers and decongestants.
For allergies, over-the-counter antihistamines can help counter your symptoms. People who frequently suffer from allergy symptoms may benefit from a nasal corticosteroid or other medications that can reduce inflammation and itching.
When to Seek Care
Both allergies and upper respiratory tract infections can lead to sinus infections, or sinusitis, a viral or bacterial infection of the sinuses, or cavities, in the skull.
When you have a sinus infection, you might experience significant pressure in the cheeks, forehead, or behind the eyes. This often will increase when leaning your head forward.
Seek care if you experience a fever, face pain, or symptoms of nasal congestion and pressure that last more than 10 days — or if signs and symptoms worsen within 10 days after initial improvement. These signs and symptoms could indicate a bacterial infection, and you may need antibiotics, Dr. Grammont says.
People can also develop chronic sinusitis, in which symptoms last longer than 12 weeks without relief from medical treatment. This condition is more common in individuals who have conditions that can block the nose or sinuses, including asthma, nasal polyps, a deviated septum or allergies. Physicians may recommend additional treatments to relieve symptoms, including surgery to remove blockages of the nasal passage.
To avoid acute sinusitis, practice regular hand-washing, use a nasal rinse or irrigation to keep your nasal passages clean, avoid allergens, and treat allergies early to keep inflammation down.
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