It’s happening again: You’re getting cold-like symptoms. Your nose is congested or runny, maybe your throat is sore or your eyes are watery. Whatever you have, it isn’t fun. You want relief, but how can you tell if you’re suffering from allergies or you’ve contracted a cold (also call rhinosinusitis or an upper respiratory tract infection) or developed a sinus infection?
“It can be sometimes difficult to tell them apart,” said Dr. Lance Grammont, D.O., a physician at ThedaCare Urgent Care-Appleton. “Colds (upper respiratory tract infections) 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 will often provide clues as to which you’re suffering.”
Nasal passages work to trap particles of dust, germs and other contaminants. When the nasal passages become infected, also called an upper respiratory tract infection or rhinosinusitis, inflammation causes the nasal passages to swell, preventing drainage and leading mucus to build up.
“You may become congested and have thick, yellowish or greenish nasal discharge,” Dr. Grammont said. “You might also have an accompanying sore throat, headache or cough.”
Upper respiratory tract infections are usually caused by a virus, and acute infections will normally dissipate on their own within 10 days. Some sinus infections are caused by bacteria or fungus and can be more serious.
With allergies, you might have some of the same cold-like symptoms as you would with a cold, including a runny nose, but the symptoms are caused by an allergic response to substances in your surrounding environment, such as pet dander, pollen, dust mites or other allergens. 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 said.
Timing also can 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. Or if your symptoms occur in certain situations, such as visiting the home of a friend who has pets.
One of the reasons upper respiratory infections and allergies are sometimes hard to tell apart is that allergies can sometimes lead to sinus infections, and upper respiratory tract infections can cause sinus infections, or sinusitis. Sinusitis is a bacterial infection one of the sinuses, or cavities, in the skull. We have sinuses in our cheeks, lower forehead, and behind our eyes. When we have a sinus infection, a bacterial infection, we usually experience significant pressure in the cheeks, forehead, or behind the eyes. This often will increase when leaning the head forward. It will sometimes be accompanied by a fever.
“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 said.
For upper respiratory tract infections, over-the-counter pain relievers and decongestants are recommended.
“Patients should be sure to drink plenty of fluids and get extra rest,” Dr. Grammont said. “These infections usually clear up on their own. Reasons for a visit to urgent care would be fevers, face pain, and symptoms of nasal congestion and pressure lasting more than 10 days — or if signs and symptoms worsen within 10 days after initial improvement.”
These signs and symptoms would likely indicate a bacterial infection that may need antibiotics.
For allergies, over-the-counter antihistamines can be effective in countering your symptoms. People who frequently suffer from allergy symptoms may benefit from a nasal corticosteroid or other medications that can reduce inflammation and itching.
Patients can develop chronic sinusitis, in which symptoms have lasted longer than 12 weeks without relief from medical treatment. This condition is more common in people who have conditions that can block the nose or sinuses, including asthma, nasal polyps, a deviated septum or frequently allergies. Physicians may recommend additional treatments to relieve symptoms, including surgery to remove blockages of the nasal passage.
People can help avoid acute sinusitis by practicing regular hand-washing, using nasal rinse or irrigation to keep the nasal passages clean, and avoiding allergens or treating allergies early to keep inflammation down.
Making Care More Convenient
ThedaCare teams are committed to providing immediate care to patients and families who need it most. For immediate, non-emergency concerns, particularly those involving young children and older adults, you may also visit a ThedaCare walk-in or urgent care location without making an appointment or talk to a provider from the comfort of your own home through the eVisit or Video Visit services.
ThedaCare walk-in and urgent care services provide convenient access to treatment and diagnostic testing for a variety of minor injuries and conditions, including services like screenings, X-rays, ultrasounds, lab work and limited immunizations. Care is available for new and existing patients, as well as children 12 months or older. To help reduce your wait time, visit thedacare.org/urgent-care and select “I’m On My Way.” For more information on all your care options, visit thedacare.org/get-care-now/.
For more than 110 years, ThedaCare® has been committed to improving the health and well-being of the communities it serves in Northeast and Central Wisconsin. The organization delivers care to more than 600,000 residents in 17 counties and employs approximately 7,000 health care professionals. ThedaCare has 180 points of care, including eight hospitals. As an organization committed to being a leader in Population Health, team members are dedicated to empowering people to live their unique, best lives. ThedaCare also partners with communities to understand needs, finding solutions together, and encouraging health awareness and action. ThedaCare is the first in Wisconsin to be a Mayo Clinic Care Network Member, giving specialists the ability to consult with Mayo Clinic experts about a patient’s care. ThedaCare is proud to partner with Children’s Wisconsin and Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin health network to enhance convenient access to the most advanced levels of specialty care. ThedaCare is a not-for-profit health system with a level II trauma center, comprehensive cancer treatment, stroke and cardiac programs, as well as primary care.