Cold vs. Flu vs. Sinus Infection: How to Tell the difference.

Viruses, viruses everywhere! It can seem like a fact of life this time of year. With so many illnesses that cause similar symptoms, how can you tell whether you have a cold, the flu or a sinus infection?

It can really be tricky! Since all three are usually viral infections affecting the upper respiratory system, they often have very similar and overlapping symptoms.

But the most effective treatment of your symptoms and your condition is dependent on the type of virus you’re fighting. So, in today’s blog, we’re offering some insight on how to tell the difference between the flu, a sinus infection, and the common cold.

First, let’s break down why viruses are more common this time of year.

Why winter is primetime for viruses

You might think that the cold weather we experience in our region this time of year is responsible for increased viruses, including the common cold, the flu, and sinus infections.

But that’s not the case! The weather is not to blame. Getting cold will not give you a cold.

That said, though, some viruses are more common this time of year. That’s because when it’s cold outside, we spend way more time indoors each day in close quarters with others — including those who are sick.

The lack of moisture in indoor air when we’re running the heat is also a factor. It can dry out your nasal passages, making acquiring viruses easier and making symptoms of those viruses a major pain.

When the symptoms overlap: Cold/flu/sinus infection

As we mentioned before, most of the illnesses that occur this time of year are viral in nature. That means that they are caused by a virus — and not treatable with antibiotics.

The most common illnesses also impact the upper respiratory system, often causing a cluster of symptoms affecting the nose, the throat, the face, and the head.

First, let’s break down the symptoms:
  • The common cold is an infection by one of approximately 200 different viruses. It usually begins with a sore throat, progressing to a runny nose or a stuffy nose, followed by a cough.
  • The flu is an infection with some strain of the influenza virus. It can cause a sore throat, congestion, headaches, chills, body aches, extreme fatigue, and a cough. It may also cause nausea and vomiting in children, but these symptoms are unlikely in adults.
  • A sinus infection is an inflammation in the sinus cavities. It can cause a stuffy or runny nose, thick green or yellow mucus, a postnasal drip (the sensation of mucus draining down the throat), headaches, and pain or pressure in the face.
With many overlapping symptoms, how can you know which illness you have?
  • The common cold typically takes a few days to develop, causes no fever or mild fever only, doesn’t usually cause body aches, and lasts seven to 10 days.
  • The flu typically develops very quickly with severe symptoms, usually causes a moderate to high fever, and causes you to be totally exhausted with intense body aches, and fatigue sticks around for several weeks.
  • A sinus infection typically develops over a few days, doesn’t cause a fever or fatigue, causes only facial pain and not body aches, and can linger for a week or so.

Because all these illnesses are viral, they are not usually treated with antibiotics. In general, treatment involves alleviating the individual symptoms you are experiencing.

You may find relief by drinking more fluids to stay hydrated, using a humidifier in your home to add moisture to the air, taking over-the-counter medications for fever and other symptoms, and getting plenty of rest.

If you think you may have the flu, see your doctor promptly. He or she may prescribe an antiviral medication, which can help reduce the severity and duration of the flu.

For information on coronavirus and flu, watch the latest from Dr. Sizemore.

If you’re experiencing the symptoms of a virus and finding no relief, see your doctor. He or she can determine whether there’s another illness causing your symptoms and offer a treatment plan. Find a doctor here.