Sinus Infection vs. Cold, Flu, & COVID-19: What’s the Difference?

Diseases such as the flu, common cold, sinus infections, and more recently - COVID-19, have similar symptoms that might make it difficult to tell them apart. However, all of these conditions are quite different from one another, despite related symptoms and manifestations. It’s important to understand the differences between sinus infection vs. cold to help you self-assess and also get the appropriate medical attention for your condition. Given that the flu season is underway, it’s integral to not confuse symptoms of sinus infection vs. flu, since so many people get infected by influenza each year. 

There's no substitute for vigilance since the COVID-19 pandemic is still underway, and it’s essential that you remain aware of all your symptoms to avoid complications. Read on as we detail the differences between sinus infections vs. COVID-19, common cold, and the flu to help you better identify your symptoms when you come down with a stuffy nose or an itchy throat.

sinus infection vs cold,

What Do These Diseases Entail?

The key to understanding your symptoms better is to know what the conditions mean and how they’re caused. Here’s what the common cold, flu, sinus infections, and COVID-19 involve:

  • Common Cold: 
    • The common cold is a viral disease caused by multiple species of rhinoviruses
    • Since the condition is caused by a virus, there’s no definitive cure, however, the infection resolves within a week or ten days. 
    • Despite the common misconception, antibiotics are not effective against the common cold since the condition is viral. 
    • Symptomatic medications such as antihistamines, Tylenol, and painkillers are effective against the common cold's symptoms and make them manageable until the infection resolves. 
    • An important point to note - there can be a sinus infection after a cold if the mucus gets pooled in your sinuses and has no way out. 
    • Unlike sinus infections, cold is a viral disease, whereas the former can be caused by bacteria, viruses, or by fungi. This is an important difference between sinus infection vs. cold. 
  • Flu: 
    • The flu or influenza is another infectious viral disease that affects over 20 million people in the United States each year. 
    • Influenza is caused by human influenza A and human influenza B viruses and is most prevalent during the flu season - the period between September and March. 
    • Like the common cold, only symptomatic treatments help with the condition, and antibiotics are ineffective against this disease. 
    • However, flu vaccines are created every year. They contain dead viruses or proteins sourced from the prevalent strains to protect you from the flu. 
    • The flu also brings with it symptoms of diarrhea, a condition unseen in sinus infections. This is a key distinguishing feature between sinus infection vs. flu. 

sinus infection vs flu,

  • Sinus Infection
    • Sinus infections are caused by the paranasal air sinuses becoming infected due to pathogens such as bacteria, viruses, or fungi, in case the individual’s immune system is severely compromised. 
    • Sinus infections are caused due to inflamed and improperly drained sinuses that provide a perfect breeding ground for bacteria and other infectious agents. 
    • Inflammation of the sinus walls caused by conditions such as cold or an allergy can cause the blockage of the passageways that lead to nasal cavities. 
    • Blockages result in clogged sinuses, which in turn favor bacterial growth and inflammation of the sinus walls. This results in pain, congestion, and difficulty in breathing. 
    • Sinus infections are either acute, sub-acute, chronic, or recurrent. Acute sinus infections last about a week and often resolve by themselves. Sub-acute infections last about four weeks, whereas chronic infections can even last for several months. On the other hand, recurrent sinus infections involve repeated occurrences of acute sinus infections.
    • Rarely, sinus infections might be accompanied by a low-grade fever. On the other hand, the cold, flu, and COVID-19 are all viral diseases that cause high fever - a key point to bear in mind when you’re confused about sinus infections vs. cold, sinus infections vs. flu, or sinus infections vs. COVID-19. 
    • Sinus infections can be managed using nasal decongestants, antibiotics, and preventive measures such as steaming, nasal irrigation, and avoiding dry environments.
  • COVID-19
    • COVID-19 is a viral disease caused by the SARS-nCoV2 virus and is a condition that came to light in 2019. 
    • The disease primarily affects the upper respiratory tract and can impact the lungs in severe cases. 
    • COVID-19 is also known to affect other organ systems in the body such as the digestive, cardiovascular, and nervous systems. 
    • While COVID-19 bears resemblances to the common cold, flu, and even sinus infections, it has more far-reaching consequences than the rest of the conditions on the list. 
    • Like the other viral diseases, COVID-19 too can only be treated for its symptoms. However, now that there exist vaccines against the disease, prevention is the better way out. 
    • It’s important to assess and understand the differences between sinus infections vs. COVID-19, so you can seek medical attention on time, in case you think you have the latter. 

The Differences in Symptoms

The difference between these conditions is better elicited when their symptoms are contrasted. Here are each disease’s most prevalent symptoms: 

  • Cold: If you’re confused whether it’s a cold or sinus infection, here’s what people commonly experience when they catch a cold: 
    • Runny nose
    • Fever
    • Malaise
    • Sore throat 
    • Bouts of sneezing 
    • Exhaustion 
    • Nasal congestion & clogged mucus 
    • Headache 
  • Flu/ Influenza: Influenza causes symptoms that affect the respiratory system and the digestive tract. Here are the disease’s common signs and symptoms: 
    • High fever 
    • Nausea & vomiting 
    • Diarrhea 
    • Sore throat 
    • Dry cough 
    • Body aches and malaise
    • Fatigue 
    • Chills followed by sweats
    • Shortness of breath
  • Sinus infections: Though restricted to the upper respiratory tract and paranasal sinuses, sinus infections can be very cumbersome to deal with and cause severe pain. The following symptoms of the condition will help you tell the differences between sinus infection symptoms vs. cold, influenza, and those of COVID-19: 
    • Pain in the eyes, cheeks, upper front teeth, and forehead
    • Stuffy nose 
    • Severe headache 
    • Heavy-headedness 
    • Rarely, low-grade fever
    • Impaired sense of smell
    • Halitosis 
    • Often thick, green, or yellow mucus 
    • Post-nasal drip (mucus draining to the back of the throat from the nose)
    • Tiredness
    • Impaired ability to focus (an effect of the pain) 
  • COVID-19: So that you don’t mistake sinus infections vs. COVID-19 and its early stages, here’s what the recent, albeit concerning condition entails: 
    • Fever
    • Dry cough 
    • Rare - wet cough 
    • Extreme fatigue 
    • Malaise 
    • Headache 
    • Runny nose 
    • Congestion 
    • Shortness of breath & difficulty breathing
    • Chest pain 
    • Diarrhea 
    • Rare - rashes & blisters on the skin 
    • Loss of smell & taste 
    • Nausea & vomiting 

sinus infection vs covid

Sinusitis Prevention

Since you now understand the differences between sinus infection vs. cold, flu, and COVID-19, it might help to understand how to prevent this condition. Sinusitis is ranked high on the pain scale and causes a great deal of inconvenience to millions of people. While treatments that include mucus thinners, nasal decongestants, and antihistamines can help, it’s far better to prevent the infection using simple methods, some of which include:

  • Nasal irrigation: Be sure to wash your nasal cavities using warm distilled water mixed with salt. The process clears excess mucus, washes away potential allergens, and helps you clear your sinuses. 
  • Steam inhalation: Steam helps ease the constricted openings of sinuses and enables your sinuses to drain. Inhaling steam while maintaining a safe distance from the source can provide relief from congestion and pain. 
  • Avoid allergens: Be sure to stay away from allergens as they cause walls of the sinuses to become inflamed, which in turn lead to clogged sinuses.
  • Elevate your head while sleeping: Since mucus can pool in your sinuses while sleeping, it’s important to keep your head raised while sleeping to avoid congestion in the morning hours. 
  • Use humidifiers: These devices help you maintain a moist environment at home, and help you avoid allergens. 

The overlapping symptoms of these conditions can make it tricky to tell them apart. Paying attention to each symptom and understanding the core differences between sinus infections vs. cold, flu, or even COVID-19 can enable you to take care of yourself and others around you. If you’re concerned about a persistent cold or congested sinuses, you can take a COVID-19 test or an influenza test to rule out these conditions. Also, be sure to contact your doctor if your symptoms don’t resolve for more than five days.