The Difference Between Allergies, a Common Cold, and a Sinus Infection

Florida is known for its sunny weather, tropical plants, and warm temperatures. However, our perennially great weather comes with a downside; allergies can last year-round for many Floridians, putting us at the top of the list for the number of allergy sufferers nationwide.

If you or your little ones are stuffy, sneezy, or just feeling under the weather, how can you tell what you’ve got, especially when leaves are falling or the ragweed blooming at full force? For most of us, telling the difference between a cold, allergies, and a sinus infection can be more than a little confusing and downright challenging.

Identifying the precise cause of your symptoms allows you to receive the right treatment to get well as quickly as possible and prevent a recurrence of symptoms down the road. Below, we discuss the main differences between allergies, the common cold, and sinus infections and what you can do to make insightful and empowered treatment decisions.

The Common Cold

Roughly 22 million school days are forfeited to the common cold every year. And almost one billion adults and children come down with a cold annually. Over two hundred different types of viruses cause colds, but the rhinovirus is the strain responsible for half of them.

The most common way to catch a cold is by coming into physical contact with someone who is already sick. An individual with a cold can also spread the bacteria into the air by coughing or sneezing, potentially infecting anyone who breathes them in. Moreover, you can contract a cold by rubbing anything that contains germs such as cutlery, coins, or a doorknob and then touching your mouth, nose, or face.

A cold usually manifests rather quickly, your symptoms will maximize around day three, and you can expect to feel better in between five to seven days without needing antibiotics. Signs of the common cold include:

  • Significant nasal congestion
  • Thick yellow or green mucus
  • Sore throat
  • Watery eyes
  • Sneezing
  • Cough
  • Headache
  • At times a fever

Sinus Infections

A sinus infection comes about when the nasal cavity becomes infected or swollen typically due to a viral or bacterial infection. Allergies, nasal polyps, and dental infections can also aggravate sinus discomfort and symptoms. Sinus congestion can bring about achiness and a feeling of fullness or pressure in the face. More than 30 million patients suffer from sinusitis annually, making sinus infections one of the main reasons people visit the doctor’s office.

The sinus cavities are lined with thin, moist layers which constantly secrete mucus. During a sinus infection, thick mucus production spikes and can block the nose and sinuses, creating congestion and pressure.

Acute sinusitis, defined as lasting for less than four weeks can include the following symptoms:

  • Nasal congestion
  • Sinus headaches
  • Nasal discharge with a different smell
  • Throat irritation and dry cough
  • Fever
  • Dental pain

The main differences between a sinus infection and the common cold are the extent and type of symptoms. While a cold will generally run its course in less than ten days, a sinus infection will last ten days or more, and symptoms can deteriorate after one week. Another telltale sign of a sinus infection is when you feel like you’re getting better after a couple of days, only to feel worse again, then improve another time, and get worse once again. Antibiotics may be prescribed if your symptoms last longer than ten days.


Roughly 50 million children and adults in the U.S. have allergies, and Florida tops the list of states for the highest allergy count in the country.

The most common allergens include:

  • Pollen, trees, and plants
  • Specific medicines
  • Animal dander
  • Dust mites
  • Mold
  • Insect bites
  • Particular foods (eggs, dairy, peanuts, and shellfish)

With allergies, your immune system attacks harmless substances that it misidentifies as foreign invaders. Histamines and other chemicals are released by the body to rectify the issue which leads to troublesome allergic reactions.

Allergies have a unique symptom profile. Symptoms typically depend on the kind of allergy and its severity. Allergenic symptoms for nasal allergies can include:

  • Clear, runny mucus
  • Dry coughing
  • Sneezing
  • Itchy and watery eyes
  • Feeling unwell or sick

Food allergies may cause tingling or inflammation in the mouth, throat, or face as well as hives. Rash, swelling of the face, or wheezing can arise from certain medications, and bee or insect allergies can cause swelling at the site of the sting, extreme itching, shortness of breath, or coughing. Some allergies can recur seasonally like clockwork, or they can last year-round if you have dust mites or mold allergy.

For more information about treating sinusitis, allergies, or the common cold, please contact us. We’ll be happy to answer any of your questions or concerns.