Is it a Cold, COVID-19, or a Sinus Infection?

Updated May 2022

One of the challenging things about recognizing COVID-19 and other illnesses is that they can share some of the same symptoms. Many articles have been written comparing the symptoms of COVID-19 and influenza, as these two illnesses have perhaps the most in common. But many symptoms of COVID-19 also resemble those of a cold or sinus infection (also called sinusitis). Learn to tell the difference and how to get the right treatment for your illness.

Causes of the Common Cold, COVID-19, and Sinusitis

The common cold and COVID-19 are both caused by different viruses. The virus that causes the cold affects the upper respiratory tract, while the novel coronavirus can affect both the upper and lower respiratory tract.

A sinus infection (sinusitis) is caused when your sinuses get blocked and fill with fluid, allowing bacteria to grow. The blockage can be due to allergies, nasal polyps, a deviated septum, or a virus like the cold. The infection can cause swelling or inflammation in the sinuses. This can cause several symptoms, many of which are similar to that of a cold.

Symptoms in Common

When it comes to COVID-19, the common cold, and sinusitis, all three have many symptoms in common. All three illnesses can cause a runny or stuffy nose, headache, sore throat, fever, fatigue, congestion, difficulty breathing, and coughing. So how can you tell them apart? While each illness has characteristic symptoms, many of them overlap, making distinguishing them based on symptomatology difficult.

If you have any of the symptoms of COVID-19, you should get tested – even if you think it could just be a cold or sinusitis. Due to the highly infectious and potentially severe nature of the illness, it is important to continue taking precautions against catching and spreading COVID-19.

Cold Symptoms

A runny nose, facial pain, and postnasal drip are common symptoms of the common cold. With the exception of facial pain, these symptoms can also be caused by the prevalent COVID variant.

The same symptoms can also be caused by sinusitis. However, sinusitis has additional symptoms that help it stand apart.

Sinusitis Symptoms

Sinusitis shares many symptoms with the common cold. This can include coughing, sneezing, headache, postnasal drip, toothache, and bad breath.

“One sign of a possible sinus infection is when you have common cold symptoms but then develop pain or pressure in your sinuses, or in your teeth, or face. This may also be accompanied by a change in nasal discharge to a yellow or green color. Also, if your cold is lasting longer than 7-10 days, it could possibly be due to a sinus infection,” says Dr. Terry Buzzard, Lead Physician at Physicians Immediate Care. “If that’s the case, come in and see us and don’t wait since sinus infections can get worse before they get better.”

COVID-19 Symptoms

The most characteristic symptoms of COVID-19 early in the pandemic were dry cough, loss of taste and smell, and respiratory symptoms. Fever, fatigue, and shortness of breath are also common.

Of the three illnesses, only COVID-19 is known to occasionally cause nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Chest pain or pressure and loss of movement are severe symptoms of COVID-19 that require immediate medical attention.

According to Dr. Arti Chawla, Lead Physician at Physicians Immediate Care, “What we are seeing with the Omicron variant this spring is more asymptomatic patients. It is often a runny nose, chills, and body aches for those experiencing symptoms. Chest pain and shortness of breath are much less common.”

In those individuals who’ve been immunized, break-through COVID infections may be mild with a runny nose or mild sore throat.  Since these individuals are contagious, it is best to be evaluated by a medical professional.

Treating a Cold

When it comes to colds, there are many over-the-counter drugs available that can help alleviate some of your symptoms, like pain relievers and decongestants. Some doctors also recommend saline irrigation to help with nasal congestion—essentially thinning the mucus in your nose with saltwater—with over-the-counter products such as a neti pot. Since colds are caused by viruses, you can only take steps to alleviate unpleasant symptoms, as they cannot be treated by antibiotics.

Treating a Sinus Infection

Sinus infections are different from colds because they are caused by bacteria growing in blocked sinuses. Because of this, they may improve with antibiotics. Depending on your situation, your doctor may prescribe medication, such as antibiotics, decongestants, or other drugs that can help relieve your pain and lessen the swelling in your sinuses.

If you feel you may have a sinus infection that is worsening, visit your urgent care clinic or primary care physician as soon as possible. You could receive treatment to help you recover faster.

Treating COVID-19

If you have respiratory symptoms that could be caused by COVID-19, self-isolate immediately and make an appointment to get tested. Some sites provide only the test, while others, like Physicians Immediate Care, provide a test, follow-up care, and possible COVID treatment options.

If your COVID-19 test at Physicians Immediate Care is positive, your physician won’t just send you off; they will explain what you can do to help yourself while you isolate yourself at home. They will also check in with a phone or telehealth appointment during the isolation period to support your recovery. If your test comes back negative, your physician will help by giving you a physical exam and asking questions to diagnose the illness that’s causing your symptoms. Your provider can then determine the best treatment to help you feel better.

Severe cases of COVID-19 require hospitalization. Seek immediate medical attention if you become confused, feel persistent pain or pressure in the chest, have trouble breathing, are unable to wake up or stay awake, or have discolored skin, lips, or nail beds (pale, gray, or blue-colored).

Tips to Help You Feel Better Now

With respiratory symptoms, there are some things you can do to start getting some immediate relief, according to Dr. Buzzard.

“The first tip I have is to take make sure you are getting an adequate amount of rest, as well as fluids. Secondly, over-the-counter medicines for cold symptoms can be helpful for symptoms like sore throat, fever, congestion, and cough.  Check with your doctor if you have questions about what is safe and effective,” says Dr. Buzzard. “My third tip is if you are smoking, stop. Smoking will make your symptoms worse and can increase your risk of secondary infections like sinus infections or pneumonia. Finally, if you are getting worse or you’ve gone longer than a week without feeling better, come in to see us.”

If you think you might have a COVID-19, a sinus infection, or another respiratory illness, a visit to one of Physicians Immediate Care’s convenient locations in Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin could provide the relief you need. In addition to caring physicians and staff who have been serving patients for more than 30 years, Physicians Immediate Care also offers evening and weekend hours, and no appointment is needed.

If you have any symptoms of COVID-19, please let us know before you arrive so we can keep you safe with our enhanced health and safety protocols.