Allergies vs. Sinusitis: How to Tell the Difference

Like headaches, fever, and general pain, a stuffy nose is one of those symptoms that can indicate one of many conditions. There’s no way to know what you have by considering a stuffed-up nose on its own. But when you put it into context with other information, you can figure out what’s causing your symptoms and decide on the right treatment.

That’s one of the things we do best here at WiseCare Urgent Care. Whether you have a pressing medical situation or need to know whether you’re suffering from allergies or sinusitis, we’re primary care experts here to help with quick, accurate service and a professional, compassionate team led by Dr. Perry Weisman. Here are some tips for figuring out what’s going on inside your nose, what you can do for it at home, and when you should see us.

How sinusitis and allergies are the same

Both sinusitis and allergies affect your nose and sinuses, so the discomfort and pain you feel in the same region. They both involve inflamed tissues inside your nose and sinuses, which can block mucus flow — you know this as a stuffy nose.

When your sinuses are blocked and filled with mucus and air, pressure builds up and causes pain and headaches. If you look no further than this, you’ll never tell the difference between sinusitis and allergies. But a closer look reveals some key differences.

How sinusitis and allergies are different

Once you investigate beyond the shared symptom of the stuffy nose, sinusitis and allergies are clearly two different conditions. Here’s where they diverge.

Caused by different things

Allergies are caused by allergens, which is anything you’re allergic to, such as dogs, cats, dust, mold, or perfume, to name just a few culprits. The allergens trigger mucus production and inflammation.

Allergies or colds cause sinusitis. So technically, sinusitis is a secondary symptom of your other sinus problems. 

The rest of the symptoms are different

Allergies are typically accompanied by itchy, watery eyes, sneezing, and wheezing.

Sinusitis comes with thick mucus that may be tinged yellow or green, pain in the sinus area and forehead, postnasal drip, bad breath, possible fever, 

How long it lasts

Colds generally resolve themselves within a week, but the symptoms of allergies come and go with the allergens. Once you know what triggers your allergies, you can do your best to avoid them, or at least be prepared when exposure happens.

Sinusitis hangs on longer than the cold or allergies that brought it on. The inflammation stays, and the stuffy, blocked nose and sinuses continue to cause pain and maybe even a cough. Acute sinusitis can last up to a month, but you may have chronic sinusitis if it sticks around even longer.

How you treat it

Allergies respond best to an antihistamine because it neutralizes allergens. Once the allergen is gone, your symptoms should subside.

If your allergy or cold symptoms caused sinusitis, it’s a bit tougher to treat. The goal is to clear your sinuses, requiring getting rid of the swelling inside so the mucus and air pressure can release. If you keep exposing yourself to allergens, you may end up in a cycle you can’t break. 

Decongestants and antihistamines may help, but if it’s been about three or four days and you haven’t noticed any improvement, stop taking them, as they tend to have the opposite effect if used too long. 

Hot packs, saline rinses, and humidifiers may bring you some relief from sinusitis as well, and if you suffer from chronic sinusitis, it’s a good idea to have these things on hand.

When to see a doctor

If you have allergies that can’t be controlled with over-the-counter antihistamines, you should make an appointment with Dr. Weisman. He can get you on the right treatment path to bring you relief. 

If your allergies are more than seasonal, if they decrease your quality of life, if they cause shortness of breath, chest pain, or wheezing, call us. 

For sinusitis, see Dr. Weisman if you can’t resolve your symptoms on your own. Sometimes a corticosteroid injection can eliminate the inflammation and help you breathe easier. And if your sinusitis happens to be caused by a bacterial infection, you may benefit from a round of antibiotics.

If you’re still not sure what’s causing your symptoms, call us for an appointment at either our Severna Park or Pasadena locations, or reserve a spot in line for our urgent care using the online tool.

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