Cold, Flu, Sinus Infection: What's the Difference?

Cold, Flu, Sinus Infection: What's the Difference?

Cold, Flu, Sinus Infection: What’s the Deal


You’re stuffy, sneezy, and miserable. That much is obvious, but it can be really tough knowing if you have a cold, flu, or sinus infection, as in many instances, symptoms of these illnesses are alike. 


But here’s why you should take the time to figure it out: Properly identifying what you’re suffering from will help you get the right treatment. For instance, if you have the flu, you might be able to save yourself days of agony with an asap call to the doc. If you have a cold, you absolutely should not ask your doc for antibiotics (aka a “Z-Pak”), as these meds cannot treat a viral infection.  


The diagnosis is the first step in feeling better. Once you know, you can take the OTC meds that diminish symptoms so you can feel more human until your body does its virus-fighting thing. Oh, and chicken soup can’t hurt, either. Here’s how to tell the difference between a cold, flu, and sinus infection: 


You Have: A Cold

What it is: A respiratory illness caused by a virus.

Common Symptoms: Having a runny and stuffy nose, as well as sneezing and a sore throat, are all hallmark symptoms of a cold. Symptoms usually come on gradually, and you may also have a slight fever or muscle aches, fatigue, and a cough, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 

How to Treat it: As you’ve probably heard, there’s no cure for the common cold. (Womp, womp.) Instead, you can practice supportive care—drinking water, eating nourishing foods, getting enough sleep—that makes symptoms easier to deal with and helps your body fight off the virus, which can last for about a week, according to Harvard Medical School


Speaking of sleep, which is critical in healing, congestion and coughing can keep you up at night, so try Nighttime Cold & Flu, which contains acetaminophen (Tylenol), a cough suppressant, and antihistamine to diminish discomfort and help you breathe better at night.


You Have: The Flu

What it is:  Respiratory illness caused by a virus that can have serious complications, such as pneumonia.

Common Symptoms: You know you have the flu if symptoms hit you like a truck—aka they come on suddenly. These often include fever, aches, fatigue, chills, and headache as well as “cold-like” symptoms of cough, stuffy nose, sore throat, and sneezing, per the CDC.

How to Treat it: If you realize you have the flu fast enough, you can call up your doctor and ask about antiviral treatment within 48 hours of symptom start, says the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease. Otherwise, the infection will have to run its course, about 3 to 7 days for most people, the CDC says


Make the day bearable by picking up the Cold & Flu Kit. (Best to have this around so you’re prepared—no one wants to head to the drugstore feeling terrible, and with COVID-19, you shouldn’t go anywhere when ill anyway.) The kit includes hand cleanser (to stop germ spread), pain reliever + fever reducer, therapeutic eucalyptus & mint shower tablets, and daytime and nighttime cold + flu medication. See? You’re feeling better already.


You Have: A Sinus Infection

What it is: Known as sinusitis, a build-up of fluid in the sinuses sets the stage for viral growth that leads to an infection. Having a cold or allergies can make you prone to one.  

Common Symptoms: Just like a cold, you’ll feel a runny and stuffy nose and sore throat and cough, as well as sinus infection-specific symptoms. For instance, headaches are common in sinus infections, but they are rare during colds. You may also feel facial pain and pressure and post-nasal drip, notes the CDC.

How to Treat it: Unless your sinus infection is caused by bacteria, your doctor will not prescribe antibiotics. (Be skeptical if yours automatically offers up an antibiotic without first identifying if you have a viral or bacterial infection.) Along with using a warm compress over your sinuses and taking steamy showers, relieve uncomfortable sinus pressure with Nasal Decongestant. This medication contains phenylephrine to quell sinus swelling and inflammation to quell pain and improve your ability to breathe. Plus, it’s non-drowsy, so you can still get things accomplished in your day, in between much-needed rest, of course.

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