Everyone knows that time of year; whether it’s early fall or early spring. The trees, flowers, and other flowering plants start shedding or releasing pollen, filling the air with those itchy, irritating spores, clogging up your nose, lungs, and throat. You cough, sneeze, and sniffle your way through, crossing your fingers that the pollen will settle soon. But how do you know when it’s something more serious than just seasonal allergies? How do you know when you’ve actually got a serious sinus infection?
What is a Sinus Infection?
A sinus infection, or “sinusitis” occurs when a buildup of bacteria in your mucus causes inflammation in your sinus cavities. There are four pairs of sinuses named for the skull bones in which they are located. Sinuses often get infections. Sinusitis is inflammation of a sinus caused by a bacterial infection that can follow a viral infection. This causes pus and mucus to accumulate in the sinus. Symptoms can include fever, headache, stuffy nose, and impaired sense of smell. Sinus infections are usually bacterial, and can be cleared up by a trip to the doctor and a course of antibiotics.
The Symptoms Are Often Similar
For those of us that suffer from seasonal allergies, we know when it’s that time of year. Your nose gets clogged up, you feel pressure in your head, you get itchy eyes and nostrils, and an overall irritation of the throat, nose, and sinuses. One of the key differences in symptoms between a serious sinus infection and an onset of seasonal allergies is itching.
With a sinus infection, the itchy, watery eyes aren’t normally a symptom. When an allergen enters your throat and eyes, it creates an immune response in those tissues, causing them to itch. Although a sinus infection can certainly cause minor itching in the nose or throat, the eyes are generally only affected by seasonal allergies.
During both a sinus infection and an allergic response, sinus pressure is common, giving you that “heavy head” feeling. The body creates excess mucus and fluids, causing the sinus cavities to fill up (which also leads to that pesky runny nose that drives us all mad).
So How Can I Tell Them Apart?
If you’re experiencing the symptoms above for a few days, it could very well just be a case of seasonal allergies. However, if symptoms persist for a week or more non stop and OTC (over-the-counter) drugs are not working to relieve your symptoms, you may have a serious sinus infection. If the mucus discharge is discolored (often green or yellowish), you may have an sinus infection. Paying attention to the timing of your symptoms is also a good indicator of the condition.
If you’re having these symptoms at a time when the pollen count is very high, you could be simply having allergies.
A sinus infection can create a feeling of tenderness around your face as well as red coloration around the nostrils. It may be hard to breathe from your nose as well. Remember, one of the key differences between the infection and the allergy is the itchy, watery eyes that seasonal allergies bring with them.
I’m Miserable, What Do I Do?
While many over the counter drugs are effective at clearing up allergy symptoms, a sinus infection is another beast altogether, and will most likely require a visit to your doctor for some antibiotics. A histamine reaction from a seasonal allergen can be counteracted with an antihistamine, which you can find at any drug store. Although certain cold medications can alleviate the symptoms of a sinus infection, only prescribed antibiotics will get rid of it; and I don’t think any of us want to ride out a miserable sinus infection.
How Can I Avoid Sinus Problems?
Everything from pollutants in the air to pet dander can cause sinus issues and allergic reactions. Since sinus infections are caused by a bacteria or virus, it’s a little more difficult to avoid them. Some people have a natural excess of mucus, creating an environment perfect for bacterial growth. There are a few simple things we can do to avoid sinus issues, however.
- Home Air Purifiers work to remove pollutants and irritants from your home’s air. These are great tools for preventing sinus problems.
- Washing Your Hands all year around (not just during cold season) can help stop the spread of bacteria and viruses.
- Being Aware of when allergy season is, and what triggers you can be helpful. If you work in an environment where you’re constantly experiencing sinus irritation, you may be allergic to something around you.
- Talking With Your Doctor is your best line of defense. He or she can suggest medications and practices to prevent infection and ease the symptoms of allergies.
Knowing the difference between a sinus infection and seasonal allergies can save you from an unnecessary trip to the doctor. Itchy, watery eyes in combination with your nose and throat symptoms indicates you’re probably suffering from allergies. If the symptoms persist and get worse over the course of a few weeks, you may have a sinus infection.
Remember that environment plays a huge part in the onset of allergies and infections. Practicing hygiene and working to recognize our irritants can helps us be a little less miserable in the future when those symptoms intrude in our daily lives. Have a discussion with your doctor about your allergies and how to prevent and manage symptoms, and if you notice your mucus has turned green or yellow, it might be time for an appointment.