Sinus Infection vs. Cold: How to Tell the Difference

Medically Reviewed by Carolin Schneider, MD

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Sinus infections and common colds have similar symptoms, but you can learn to tell them apart. A sinus infection means you have inflammation and mucus buildup in your sinuses — hollow spaces behind your forehead and cheekbones and between your eyes. Colds are caused by viruses, while sinus infections (also called sinusitis) can be caused by viral, bacterial or fungal infections. 

Both colds and sinus infections are very common. But while there’s no cure for the common cold, some bacterial sinus infections may need treatment with antibiotics. Learn how to tell the difference between a cold and a sinus infection.

Yellow or Green Mucus? Probably a Sinus Infection

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A runny or stuffy nose can be a common sign of both colds and sinus infections. So how to tell the difference? Well, a sinus infection almost always causes mucus that’s a yellow, greenish yellow or dark green color. So if you blow your nose and see those colors, a sinus infection might be to blame.

Sometimes the mucus doesn’t come out of the nose, but drips from the sinuses down the back of your throat instead. This is known as postnasal drip. Postnasal drip can also irritate your throat and cause a cough, and you may find yourself coughing up yellow or green mucus.

Sinus Infections Cause Headaches and Sinus Pressure

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When your sinuses fill up with fluid and mucus, it can cause feelings of pressure and pain. Sometimes this feels like a headache in the front of your head. (If the ache is farther back, it’s probably not your sinuses.)

Sinus pressure can also make your face feel very tender and sensitive, especially around your nose or behind your eyes. You may also notice that sinus pressure feels more uncomfortable when you bend over.

Sinus Infections Last Longer Than a Cold

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At first, it might be hard to tell if your symptoms are from a cold or a sinus infection. But if your symptoms haven’t gone away after about a week, that’s a sign that it’s probably more than a cold. And if you have cold-like symptoms that seem to be getting better and then take a turn for the worse, that’s another clue that you might have a sinus infection.

Other Signs of Sinus Trouble — and When to Get Help

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Depending on what’s causing a sinus infection, you may also notice some other symptoms that are different from cold symptoms, including:

  • Bad breath
  • Fever
  • Toothache
  • Changes in your sense of smell

Most sinus infections don’t need a trip to the doctor, and home remedies can help ease your symptoms. But you do need to go to the doctor right away if you have any of the following symptoms:

  • Blurry vision
  • High fever that doesn’t go away
  • Stiff neck

These can be signs of a more serious problem, so tell your doctor right away.

And if you think your symptoms might be from the seasonal flu, check out these key differences between cold and flu symptoms.

Resource Links:

  • “Sinus Infection” via CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
  • “Acute Sinusitis” via Mayo Clinic
  • “Sinusitis” via Family Doctor (American Academy of Family Physicians)
  • “Is That Winter Sniffle a Cold or a Sinus Infection?” via Harvard Health Publishing