Do I Have Allergies or a Sinus Infection?

March 9, 2024


As the northern hemisphere steadily inches toward spring many of us are excited to welcome the warmer weather, find our favorite exercise hoody, and get back to our favorite outdoor activities. An ideal way to get moving and work toward more rigorous activity is by exploring local walking trails while enjoying the beautiful spring flowers and bright new leaves. Sadly, the beauty of spring is sprinkled with the pollens and spores that awaken the allergies that have laid dormant and lead to allergies and sinus infections. So, what are the sinuses and how can understanding them better help us to better deal with these seasonal annoyances?

If you suspect you have spring allergies or sinus infection, visit AFC Urgent Care Dalton today for prompt, compassionate care.

What Are the Sinuses?

The sinuses are the four air-filled cavities located on each side of your nose behind your facial bones. Like the nose, the sinuses are lined with mucus membranes that work to move allergens, bacteria, and viruses to the back of the throat and down into the stomach. Sinuses are located just above the eyebrows, around and under the eyes, and behind the nasal bones with the largest ones being about an inch wide. Bacteria and germs are not present in healthy sinuses. It is thought that the sinuses play a role in voice resonation, helping to filter air, and keeping the nose moist as it warms inhaled air before it reaches the lungs. When the sinuses become swollen and inflamed, doctors call the condition sinusitis.

Allergic Sinusitis

We are all familiar with allergies—the flowers, the tree pollen—and all the sneezing that follows. Those of us who suffer from seasonal allergies know that now is the time to stock up on a lot of tissue! Allergy symptoms result from our immune system overreacting to an external trigger and producing histamines as it tries to rid the body of allergens. Symptoms tend to come and go throughout the growing season as different plants move through their lifecycle and their pollen becomes airborne. In the early spring, we are inundated with tree pollen, the late spring and early summer bring grass pollen, fall brings ragweed pollen and warm, moist weather brings with it increasing numbers of spores from mold and fungi. You may not be allergic to oak tree pollen and feel no allergic response, however, you might be very allergic to ragweed pollen and when it begins floating around you, you can become quite miserable very quickly.

Additional causes of allergies include dust mites, cockroach droppings, and pet dander all of which are present year-round, but may increase in severity with houses tightly closed against the cold.

Common symptoms:

  • Cough
  • Sneezing
  • Watery & Itchy eyes
  • A general unwell feeling
  • Fatigue due to poor sleep
  • Runny nose & congestion
  • Itchy nose, throat, roof of mouth

Acute Sinusitis

Acute sinusitis begins with a common cold or other virus. Unlike allergies that cause inflammation due to an immune response to an external trigger, viruses or bacteria cause the inflammation of acute sinusitis. When sinuses become inflamed and swollen it becomes hard for the mucus membrane to work properly and drain the mucus down the throat. Breathing becomes more difficult, and bacteria can begin to collect and grow if the sinus blockage persists long enough.

Symptoms can include:

  • Thick mucus
  • Fever
  • Ear pressure
  • Headache
  • Congestion
  • Aching in the teeth
  • Changed sense of smell
  • Bad breath
  • Post-nasal drip (mucus running down the back of the throat)
  • Pressure, swelling, or tenderness of the forehead, cheek, nose, or eye area that worsens when you bend over

How can I tell the difference?

The symptoms of allergies and sinus infections can resemble each other closely, so the best way to tell the difference between an allergic response and an acute sinusitis response is through careful observation of your symptoms. One quick indicator that your symptoms are due to an allergic response rather than a bacterial infection is the presence of itchiness which is rarely present in infections. Trouble breathing through your nose and congestion are also potential indications of an infection. One widespread belief is that the color of your mucus is an indicator of whether you have an infection, but this is a myth. Sometimes a cough and sore throat accompany a bacterial infection, but not always. The best indicators that you may have an infection are the presence of a fever and/or facial and ear pain with throbbing.

Treatment Options

  • Saline nasal sprays to rinse your nasal passages
  • Inhaling steam to relieve nasal congestion.
  • Decongestants (over-the-counter)
  • Corticosteroid nasal sprays to reduce inflammation
  • Allergy shots (desensitization may benefit those with allergies)
  • Over-the-counter pain relievers (Caution: never give Aspirin to children)
  • Severe bacterial infections may require antibiotics.

When to Seek Professional Help

  • Symptoms lasting longer than 10-14 days or worsening symptoms after 7 days
  • Confusion
  • Severe headache that is not helped by over-the-counter medications
  • Stiff neck
  • Pain, swelling, or redness around the eyes
  • High fever
  • Double vision or other vision changes

The good news is that whether you have allergic or acute sinusitis, they both tend to go away on their own within a week to ten days without requiring a doctor’s visit or antibiotics. Of course, this doesn’t mean that the recovery is entirely enjoyable. If you have allergies, be sure to have helpful medications available as most cases of acute sinusitis develop from allergy symptoms.

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