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Is It a Cold, Sinusitis, or Allergic Rhinitis?

A stuffy, runny nose and head congestion are no fun. More than 100 viruses cause colds, which spread when people who are infected cough or sneeze virus-containing droplets into the air, or leave the virus behind on surfaces they touch. But how do you know if you’re battling a common cold, sinusitis, or allergic rhinitis? 

The symptoms typically associated with a cold can overlap with sinusitis and allergic rhinitis, making it challenging to tell the difference.

Common cold

The common cold is an upper respiratory infection that affects your nose and throat. Most people who get a cold recover in 7-10 days. It may linger slightly longer if you have a weaker immune system or lifestyle factors such as smoking.

A cold typically causes thick, discolored discharge, sneezing and a runny nose, and while you may feel miserable, it’s usually harmless. You may feel tired and groggy and have body aches. Most colds don’t require medical attention, although you should see a doctor if you develop a high fever or if your symptoms feel severe.


Your sinuses are positioned behind your nose, as well as your cheeks and forehead. These air-filled spaces are designed to catch germs and other pollutants to prevent them from getting to areas like your lungs.

When you have sinusitis, a bacteria or virus infects the sinuses and causes inflammation. The lining of your sinuses swells, preventing them from draining properly. You typically notice pressure, pain and nasal congestion. Like the common cold, sinus infections may present with discolored discharge. 

Sinus infections are usually temporary, but some people are prone to recurring sinus infections. If your symptoms last at least 12 weeks and you have more than one episode, it’s possible that you have chronic sinusitis.

Common cold versus sinusitis

While the symptoms of a cold and sinusitis can overlap, the duration of your symptoms is often a sign of what you may be dealing with. A healthy immune system is highly adept at fighting off a cold. For this reason, cold symptoms usually begin to improve in 3-5 days, while sinusitis typically lingers longer. 

If your symptoms last longer than 10 days without any improvement, there’s a chance you may have sinusitis.

Allergic rhinitis

For years, some patients suffer from what they believe are recurrent bouts of sinusitis, only to learn that they actually have an allergy. This all-too-common scenario is possible for two primary reasons. Allergic rhinitis can make you prone to sinus infections, and the symptoms of allergic rhinitis can overlap with sinusitis, making it challenging to tell the two apart. 

Allergic rhinitis develops when you breathe in a substance you’re allergic to, called an allergen. The most common triggers are plant pollens. Other triggers include dust mites, pet dander, and mold. Here’s what allergic rhinitis looks like:

Allergy testing is a safe way to get to the bottom of your symptoms. Skin testing involves pricking a small amount of different allergens into your skin and watching for a reaction. If you have allergic rhinitis, effective treatment options are available to get your symptoms under control.

Avoid self-diagnosing

The internet is a great tool to get information and stay connected, and while it’s tempting to search your symptoms in an effort to find out what’s wrong, it’s best to avoid self-diagnosing. If you think you have a cold and take over-the-counter cold medicine when you really have an allergy, you’re missing out on appropriate treatment. 

The same goes for sinusitis. It’s a good idea to leave the diagnosing and treatment to a qualified health professional. If you’re experiencing recurrent symptoms, it’s wise to rule out an allergy.

Lead by top-quality allergist and immunologist Dr. Ulrike Ziegner, our team can get to the bottom of your symptoms. If Dr. Ziegner confirms that you have an allergy, we create an individual treatment plan to get your symptoms under control and help you gain relief. 

To learn more, contact our Redondo Beach, California, office to schedule an appointment. Our online scheduling tool offers an additional option for sending your request. 

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