The Common Cold vs. Sinus Infections: How to Tell the Difference

couple sitting sick on couch with kleenex

Navigating the symptoms of a common cold and a sinus infection can be a real puzzle, especially during the colder months when these ailments become more prevalent. Both conditions share similar symptoms, making it tricky to distinguish between the two. However, understanding the key differences can help you manage your symptoms more effectively and seek the right treatment. Let’s explore how you can tell the difference between a common cold and a sinus infection.

What is the Common Cold?

The common cold is a viral infection of your upper respiratory tract, primarily affecting the nose and throat. It is usually harmless and caused by rhinoviruses. Symptoms can include a runny or stuffy nose, sore throat, coughing, sneezing, headaches, and body aches. Generally, cold symptoms are milder and gradually improve within a week to 10 days.

What is a Sinus Infection?

A sinus infection, or sinusitis, occurs when your nasal cavities become swollen, inflamed, and infected. This condition can be triggered by a virus, bacteria, or fungi. Symptoms of a sinus infection include nasal congestion and thick nasal discharge, facial pain or pressure, reduced sense of smell and taste, cough, and bad breath. Unlike a cold, sinus infection symptoms can last for weeks or even longer if not properly treated.

Key Differences Between the Common Cold and Sinus Infections

FeatureCommon ColdSinus Infection
Causative AgentViruses (mostly rhinoviruses)Viruses, bacteria, or fungi
Symptom OnsetGradualCan be sudden or gradual
Duration of Symptoms7-10 daysMore than 10 days without improvement
Nasal DischargeWatery, clearThick, yellow or green
Facial Pain/PressureRare/MildCommon and can be severe
FeverLess common and usually mildMore common, can be higher
HeadacheCommon but generally mildOften severe
Smell and TasteSlightly reduced or unchangedSignificantly reduced or lost
CoughCommonLess common, but can occur
FatigueUsually mildCan be severe and longer-lasting

Duration of Symptoms

One of the most telling differences is the duration of symptoms. Cold symptoms typically peak within 2-3 days and start to improve within a week. On the other hand, sinus infection symptoms persist for 10 days or more without any sign of improvement.

healthy sinus vs. sinusitis

Type of Nasal Discharge

While both conditions can produce a runny nose, the nature of the discharge is often different. A common cold usually causes a watery and clear nasal discharge. In contrast, a sinus infection often results in a thick, yellow or greenish nasal discharge.

Facial Pain and Pressure

Sinus infections are notorious for causing significant facial pain or pressure, especially around the nose, eyes, or forehead. This symptom is less common and less intense with a common cold.


A fever is more common with sinus infections than with colds. If you have a persistent fever, especially if it’s high, it might indicate a sinus infection or another type of infection.

When to See a Doctor

While both the common cold and sinus infections can often be managed at home, there are times when it’s important to seek medical advice. For a cold, see a doctor if symptoms persist for more than 10 days, if you have a high fever, or if symptoms suddenly worsen. In the case of sinus infections, medical attention is needed if symptoms continue for more than 10 days without improvement, if there is severe facial pain, or if you experience symptoms such as vision changes, swelling around the eyes, or persistent high fever.


Distinguishing between a common cold and a sinus infection is key to managing your health effectively. By paying attention to the duration and nature of your symptoms, you can better determine the cause of your discomfort and decide on the appropriate course of action. Remember, if in doubt, it’s always best to consult with a healthcare professional to get the correct diagnosis and treatment. Taking care of your health is essential, and understanding these differences can help you achieve that.

Lee A. Kleiman a doctor at Anne Arundel ENT

Dr. Lee A. Kleiman is a double board certified ENT & plastic surgeon at Anne Arundel ENT in Annapolis, Maryland known for his superior clinical outcomes in all Surgical and Non-Surgical ENT, specializing in Sinus Care, Voice and Swallowing, Rhinoplasty and Revision Rhinoplasty, and Facelifts and Non-surgical Aesthetic. He also continues to attend conferences internationally and nationally to keep abreast of the latest treatments and technology.