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What is the Difference Between a Cold, Allergies and Sinusitis?

What is the Difference Between a Cold, Allergies and Sinusitis?

At one time or another you’ve had the feeling. Your nose is congested and then it may get runny; you cough and feel that dreaded drip from the back of your nose down your throat. Ugh! Whatever it is, it’s back and you feel terrible. Colds, allergies and sinusitis are commonly self-diagnosed and the diagnosis is usually wrong! How can you tell the difference and how does the ENT treat colds, allergies and sinusitis?

The common cold

The common cold isn’t so common. There are thousands of cold viruses. If you have ever tangled with a cold virus you know the symptoms. First you get a bit of a sore throat. Then the other symptoms appear:

  • Runny nose with watery, clear mucous
  • Cough
  • Sneezing
  • Fatigue (but not muscle ache)

A cold itself won’t cause you to have a fever. However if the cold causes a secondary infection in the ears, throat or sinuses then the infection will cause a fever

ENT treatment for common cold

You don’t need an ENT for the common cold. You need to do what your mother told you. Her advice is still good today.

  • Rest
  • Drink plenty of liquids
  • Control symptoms with over the counter medications

It doesn’t hurt to eat some chicken soup. The broth contains easily digested nutrition, the steam can open clogged nasal passages and the warm soup is soothing to a sore throat. Don’t bother with antihistamines; they won’t help. Keep your germs to yourself. Stay home from work or school, cover your mouth when you sneeze and frequently wash your hands.

A cold will generally run from five to 10 days. Symptoms start strong and then slowly subside.


Allergies are caused by an overactive and highly confused immune system. Your immune system is not correctly identifying harmless proteins in your environment. Your immune system sees an evil germ invader that must be vanquished; when in fact is it nothing more than a harmless bit of protein from dried animal saliva, dust mite feces or pollen.

Allergy symptoms are close to cold symptoms. But unlike cold symptoms, allergy symptoms will not go away until exposure to the triggering protein is removed. Symptoms include:

  • Watery or itchy eyes
  • Wheezing and difficulty breathing
  • Runny nose
  • Stuffy nose
  • Cough

In addition, you may develop a skin rash or eczema. Allergies do not cause a fever. They only result in fatigue when exposure is not controlled for an extended period of time.

ENT treatment for allergies

The ENT knows that uncontrolled allergies can cause chronic infections of the sinuses and ears. Your ENT will work with you to develop an allergy control program that consists of:

  • Identifying the trigger proteins and avoiding them
  • Immunotherapy if appropriate
  • Medication to control flare ups

The ENT will monitor your allergy control program and make adjustments as necessary. This is crucial in avoiding secondary infections and development of asthma.


Sinusitis generally starts as a viral infection or a cold. It can also occur as a result of an allergic flare up or the presence of nasal polyps. It is a secondary condition but can cause more problems than the primary condition. This is why it is important to see the ENT for treatment of chronic sinusitis.

Sinusitis may start with all the symptoms of a cold or allergies. These include:

  • Runny nose
  • Stuffy nose
  • Cough
  • Congestion

Then the tell-tale symptoms appear. These include:

  • Pain in the face and head
  • Loss of sense of smell
  • Loss of sense of taste
  • Fatigue
  • Bad breath

Sinusitis needs treatment by the ENT to identify the cause of the infection, treat it and keep it from coming back.

ENT treatment for sinusitis

ENTs begin treatment of sinusitis with treating the infection. Antibiotics are prescribed. Nasal sprays or steroids may be used to reduce inflammation. You may be given decongestants and instructed to use nasal irrigation or a steam inhaler.

When sinusitis recurs and does not respond to treatment, your ENT may discuss surgical options.

If you have cold symptoms that linger for more than 10 days or get worse instead of better, its time to stop self-diagnosing and see the ENT for expert diagnosis and treatment.