It happens to all of us—a runny nose, congestion, perhaps a feeling of pain and pressure in the face. How do you know if it’s a cold—the “sniffles”—or a sinus infection, and what treatment works best?
The nose is a complex organ, lined with tiny hairs that help move mucus to the back of the throat. When this system becomes overloaded, the drainage begins to appear in the form of a runny nose, or rhinitis, says Dr. Sanford Archer, associate professor of surgery in the University of Kentucky College of Medicine, Division of Otolaryngology.
A runny nose can be caused by allergies, which appear seasonally, generally in the spring and fall. Temperature changes can also cause short-lived sniffles due to simple condensation, just as water collects on a cold soda can in the summer.
A cold, however, is a viral infection, usually marked by clear drainage and congestion, generally with no pain or pressure in the face, and rarely lasts longer than five days. Many patients begin to feel better on their own after about three days, and most show improvement after five days.
Sinusitis, however, lasts longer and hits harder. Patients feel worse after five days with no sign of improvement, and the runny nose and congestion are accompanied by pain and pressure in the face. Sinusitis sufferers may also have teary eyes due to congestion that does not allow the tear ducts to drain properly.
If symptoms continue to worsen after seven days, a visit to the doctor may help. A physician may prescribe antibiotics that can lessen the bacterial load.
The majority of sinusitis patients get better on their own, but there are home remedies that can help alleviate the misery, says Dr. Archer.
Saline sprays—simply, salt water solutions—are good for irrigating the nose and can be repeated every hour or two. Steam may be even more effective for some patients, because as the hot air rises, it permeates the sinuses. Good ways to take in the steam are via a hot shower, or boiling a pot of salt water on the stove and hanging your head a safe distance above to breathe in the vapor.
Another low-tech method can be found in your grocery store or in your kitchen: horseradish, or other spicy foods. Smelling them can release chemicals in the nose that cause it to begin to decongest.
If you need something more potent, over-the-counter medication can help. The two best options are pseudoephedrine (Sudafed, available by request at the pharmacy counter) and neosynephrine (Afrin). Pseudoephedrine is available in liquid or pill form, and neosynephrine is used as a nasal spray. Dr. Archer cautions against using medicated nasal sprays for more than about four days, however, as a rebound effect can occur in which the nasal lining begins to swell, causing further congestion.
For more information, contact the ENT (ear-nose-throat) Clinic at the University of Kentucky Chandler Medical Center at (859) 257-5405, or the Asthma, Allergy, and Sinus Clinic at (859) 323-5365.