The difference between allergies and sinus infections

An allergy arises when the immune system in the body overreacts to irritants and allergens. The infection with the sinus, sometimes called sinusitis, is usually bacterial or viral.

Allergy symptoms and sinus infections can be very similar. These conditions can cause discomfort and pressure in the sinus, a runny nose, coughing and sneezing. Allergies can also sometimes lead to infections with the sinus.

An accurate diagnosis is crucial as the treatments for allergies and sinus infections are different.

In this article we’re explaining the variations for each of these problems and the therapies.

What is the difference?

Sinus infections and allergies can cause very similar symptoms.
Sinus infections and allergies can cause very similar symptoms.

A sinus infection, also called sinusitis, occurs when it infects or inflames the sinuses. There are 4 pairs of sinuses, each of which can develop sinusitis in the skull and the nose.

Sinusitis can be chronic, or acute. It means that if it is acute, it is temporary, and the effects will diminish after around 10 days.

A doctor is likely to suspect chronic sinusitis when symptoms have continued for more than 12 weeks and there has been no medical treatment.

Chronic sinusitis is more common in people with allergies, asthma, a deviated septum and other disorders that may obstruct the nose or sinuses.

Allergies meanwhile are a kind of reaction to the immune system.

In a person with allergies the immune system battles a harmless substance violently, causing pain and inflammation.

A doctor may refer to this as hay fever or allergic rhinitis when a person breathes into a substance to which they are allergic, and their sinuses become inflamed.

Allergies to inhaled substances, such as dust and dander, can cause inflammation and symptoms similar to those associated with sinusitis.

An allergy may in some cases cause a sinus infection.

Bacteria and other pathogens may become stuck in the nose when the sinuses swell in reaction to an allergen or irritant, potentially causing an infection.

Conversely, sinus infections do not cause allergies. But if a person has allergies and sinusitis, the infection will make the symptoms of the allergy worse.

Symptoms

Sinusitis and allergies in the nasal passages may cause swelling, leading to coughing, or a stuffy nose. Both conditions can also cause headaches and a feeling of pressure on the forehead.

Many subtle differences, however, can help a person find out if they are having an allergic reaction or sinusitis.

Allergies may turn up without warning or with seasonal changes. Sinusitis also results from a cold infection or another viral infection.

Allergies

A person may be having an allergic reaction if they have:

  • symptoms that come and go or appear only at particular times of the year
  • symptoms that appear only in certain situations, such as at a pet store
  • itchy, watery eyes
  • watery, clear, or thin discharge from the nose
  • frequent sneezing

Sinusitis

A person may have sinusitis if they experience:

  • thick mucus that is yellow or green
  • symptoms that do not seem related to certain locations or situations
  • pain in the gums or above the teeth
  • bad breath
  • intense pressure in the face
  • a reduced ability to smell or taste
  • a fever

Diagnosis

A doctor can help diagnose sinusitis or different allergies.

Allergies

An allergy may be treated with testing by a doctor. An allergist, a doctor specializing in allergies, may take a sample of a person’s blood or skin to be tested.

They may also ask the person to know more about their medical history.

Sinusitis

A doctor can diagnose sinusitis by:

  • performing a physical examination
  • asking about symptoms
  • considering the person’s medical history
  • performing a CT scan
  • performing an endoscopy

To determine the cause of the symptoms, the clinician may ask if the person recently had a cold or was exposed to common allergens.

They may also test the nose, press on the sinuses, or take a nasal discharge sample to test for bacteria.

Treatment

There are a variety of treatments for allergies and sinusitis.

Allergies

The right allergy treatment depends on the allergen and factors specific to the person.

Some options include using:

  • nasal steroids to reduce inflammation
  • antihistamines
  • decongestants
  • drugs called mast cell stabilizers
  • oral steroid medication
  • immunotherapy, which involves slowly exposing the person to small amounts of an allergen to reduce the body’s reaction
  • avoiding the allergen
  • using an epinephrine autoinjector, if the person has severe allergic reactions

Sinusitis

Unblocking of the sinuses and nasal passages may help relieve sinusitis symptoms. This allows drainage of the sinuses, thereby reducing the possibility of further inflammation and infection.

May help with the following treatments:

The following treatments can help:

  • sinus flushes
  • steam inhalation
  • saline sprays to keep the nose clean
  • over-the-counter steroid sprays to temporarily reduce inflammation
  • prescription steroid sprays
  • nasal strips to make breathing easier during sleep

The doctor can prescribe antibiotics when there is a bacterial infection.

In many cases, prescription care is not needed by a individual. 70 percent of people with sinusitis recover without prescription medication, according to the American Academy of Asthma, Allergy & Immunology.

When a person has chronic sinusitis a doctor will prescribe surgery to remove sinus or nose blockages. This is usually a last resort and a person may still need ongoing medical treatment to prevent recurrence of the problem.

Prevention

Allergies

Certain strategies can reduce the chances of developing allergies or prevent allergy symptoms from worsening over time.

These strategies involve:

  • early exposure to common food allergens, including through breast milk
  • early exposure to animals
  • avoiding exposure to dust mites by cleaning and dusting regularly and using hypoallergenic bedding
  • avoiding exposure to cigarette smoke

Sinusitis

Some lifestyle strategies and home treatments may help prevent sinusitis, especially when the issue is chronic.

These strategies involve:

  • washing the hands regularly and keeping the nose clean to reduce the spread of infection
  • using nasal rinses to cleanse the nasal passages
  • treating any allergies to reduce inflammation
  • avoiding any allergens

When to see a doctor

Neither sinusitis nor reactions to allergies seem to be medical emergencies. A individual can, however, experience a severe reaction called anaphylaxis which may be life-threatening.

Signs of anaphylaxis may be as follows:

  • difficulty breathing
  • a rash
  • changes in heart rate
  • swelling in the throat

Someone with these should call 911 or seek emergency medical attention elsewhere.

If sinusitis is the result of a bacterial infection and the person is not receiving treatment, the infection may spread to other body areas. It is important to seek timely care after a bout of sinusitis for a headache, nausea, chills or other severe symptoms.

Anyone experiencing allergies or sinusitis should see a doctor if:

  • symptoms do not go away within 1 week
  • symptoms get worse
  • symptoms do not improve or worsen with prescription medication
  • allergy treatments stop working

Summary

The pain and pressure caused by allergies and sinusitis can make sleeping and concentrating difficult. This can affect the quality of life for a person.

It is treatable for both conditions. A specialist, like an allergist or otolaryngologist, can help diagnose the problem and recommend a course of action.

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