Sinus infections plague 31 million Americans every year. More than 50 million have some type of allergy. The symptoms of both are similar, so it can be hard to know if you’re sneezing and have a headache from an infection or an allergic response. How can you tell the difference between allergies and a sinus infection?

The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA) says that allergies are the sixth leading cause of chronic illness in the U.S. today. Indoor and outdoor allergies cause sinus swelling, itching, runny nose, and a host of other symptoms caused from:

  • Cockroaches
  • Dust mites
  • Pet dander
  • Mold
  • Rodent dander
  • Tree, grass, or weed pollen

An allergic response is triggered when your immune system overreacts to a foreign substance. It could be something you’ve consumed, touched, or just breathed in. You’ll experience a scratchy throat, itchy eyes, coughing and sneezing, and, if the reaction is severe, asthma, rashes, low blood pressure, and even death. There is no cure for allergies but they can be treated by your doctor.

Rhinosinusitis (sinusitis), or a sinus infection, happens when your sinuses become swollen, inflamed, and infected. A virus is the usual culprit, although bacteria or fungus can sometimes be the cause. However, common allergies can even lead to a sinus infection.

Both illnesses can make you feel awful, but they aren’t the same thing, and shouldn’t be treated in the same way.

Brittany C. Dobson, M.D., an otolaryngologist at The Ear, Nose, Throat & Plastic Surgery Associates, says, “We see a lot of patients repeatedly put on antibiotics for things that aren’t truly a sinus infection.”

Are There Different Treatments for Allergies vs. a Sinus Infection?

Yes, the treatments for allergies are different from a sinus infection, but it’s easy to confuse the two illnesses because the symptoms they cause are so similar. For example:

Allergies Sinus infection
Bad breath X
Fever X
Headache X X
Itchy, watery eyes X
Nasal stuffiness X X
Pain in your eyes and cheeks X
Thick green or yellow nasal discharge X
Tooth pain X
Trouble breathing through your nose X X
Unable to blow your nose X

Dr. Dobson comments, “One of the things that I hear over and over from patients is that they have these terrible sinus infections and I think a lot of times that they seem to underplay or not fully realize the role that the allergies are playing in their sinus complaints.”

What’s the Difference Between Allergies and a Sinus Infection?Determining the underlying cause of these symptoms is important because if you have allergies and they’re treated with an antibiotic, it won’t solve the underlying issues causing all of your symptoms.

If you have severe stuffiness related to either allergies or a sinus infection, the symptoms can be lessened with an over-the-counter or prescription decongestant. Common allergy treatments can also include antihistamines that block the immune system response.

However, allergy medications will not eliminate the sinus infection. The first step is to understand whether the sinus infection is viral or bacterial. If your doctor believes the sinus infection is viral, you should:

  • Drink clear fluids such as broth or water
  • Rest as much as possible
  • Take over-the-counter or prescription medicines to alleviate symptoms
  • Use a saline spray to rehydrate your nasal passages

If your sinus infection is caused by bacteria, your doctor may prescribe an antibiotic. No matter the underlying cause, if you’re experiencing the sneezing, stuffiness, and aches and pains that make you feel lousy, it’s time to see your doctor to diagnose the underlying issue and work to correct it.

How Can an ENT Help with My Allergies or Sinus Infection?

An ENT specialist, or otolaryngologist, has special training in the diagnosis and treatment protocols for a variety of disorders of the head, neck and face. From simple sinusitis and allergies to surgical correction of physical deformities of the sinuses, voice disorders, or problems with the thyroid—to name just a few of the conditions your otolaryngologist is trained to treat.

Allergies are a common problem, and, when they are chronic, they can lead to debilitating symptoms. Dr. Dobson says her goal is to, “Work on the allergies, get the symptoms under control, decrease the frequency of the flare ups, and get you feeling better.”

If you experience any of these symptoms that last more than 10 days, it’s more than time to see your doctor:

  • Balance or dizziness issues
  • Chronic post nasal drip
  • Discolored nasal discharge
  • Frequent headaches
  • Hearing loss or “stuffy” ears
  • Hoarseness or other voice issues
  • Pain in your ears, face, or teeth
  • Persistent sore throat
  • Recurring adenoid, ear, or tonsil infections
  • Tinnitus or ringing in the ears
  • Trouble swallowing

Can I Prevent the Allergies that Lead to a Sinus Infection?

What’s the Difference Between Allergies and a Sinus Infection?While you can’t fully prevent allergies, you may be able to avoid what is causing the allergic reaction. For example, if you have seasonal allergies and the pollen count is high, stay indoors and keep the windows shut and air conditioning on. Knowing what causes the allergic response, and then mapping out a strategy of medications and avoidance techniques is something that your doctor can help you with.

However, prevention is possible with sinus infections caused by bacteria or viruses. It’s always a good idea to get plenty of rest and exercise regularly to keep your immune system functioning. Some of the other preventative techniques to head off a sinus infection are similar to what you’d do to stave off colds and flu, including staying hydrated and taking vitamin C to boost your immunity. Frequent handwashing was always important well before the COVID-19 pandemic reminded us to improve our hygiene. You should also avoid nasal irritants like smoke or other pollution. Keeping the nose hydrated with a saline spray will help the sinuses work more effectively.

Despite your best efforts, if you are experiencing the symptoms of a sinus infection, it’s important to see your doctor to diagnose what’s going on and help you get better fast.

The Ear, Nose, Throat and Plastic Surgery Associates offers a full range of pediatric and adult otolaryngology services. Our experienced staff, friendly, and convenient service ensures that you don’t have to suffer from either allergies or a sinus infection. Contact us today to get the care you need.