It’s easy to panic and assume you have COVID-19 if you suddenly develop a runny nose and headache, but it’s also simple enough to write your symptoms off as “just” a sinus infection. And then it’s possible to be somewhere in the middle, wondering whether you’re under- or over-reacting.
Given that it’s now officially cold and flu season, the sinus infections that can follow those illnesses are becoming more common. And so is the question of whether you’re dealing with COVID-19 vs. a sinus infection.
Not sure what’s happening in your body? This info from doctors should help.
First, what is a sinus infection?
A sinus infection, a.k.a. sinusitis, happens when fluid builds up in your sinuses, the air-filled pockets in your face, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). That allows germs to grow. Viruses cause most sinus infections, but bacteria can cause some sinus infections, the CDC says.
There are several things that can raise your risk of getting a sinus infection, but the CDC specifically lists these:
A previous cold
Smoking and exposure to secondhand smoke
Structural problems within the sinuses, like growths on the lining of the nose or sinuses
A weak immune system or taking drugs that weaken the immune system
What are the symptoms of a sinus infection?
According to the CDC, these are the most common symptoms of a sinus infection:
Facial pain or pressure
Mucus dripping down the throat (post-nasal drip)
But, in some situations, you may experience severe headache or facial pain, symptoms that get worse after initially improving, symptoms that last for more than 10 days without getting better, and a fever lasting longer than three to four days.
What are the symptoms of COVID-19, again?
You probably have these memorized by now, but it never hurts to go over them again. The CDC says that the following are symptoms of COVID-19:
Fever or chills
Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
Muscle or body aches
New loss of taste or smell
Congestion or runny nose
Nausea or vomiting
So, what's the difference between COVID-19 and a sinus infection?
It can be tough, says Eric H. Holbrook, M.D., director of rhinology at Mass Eye and Ear. “Because there are shared symptoms for sinus infections and COVID-19 infections, diagnosing one from the other can be difficult for both the patient and physician,” he says. “The most prominent symptoms of a sinus infection also includes nasal obstruction or congestion, nasal drainage, and diminished sense of smell.”
One thing that might be helpful, though, is to gauge your pain. “A sinus infection often gives you a lot of pain that’s up in your cheeks and into your forehead,” says William Schaffner, M.D., an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. “It’s usually above the neck.” But, in some cases, Dr. Holbrook says, drainage from the nose down the back of the throat can cause a cough in some patients.
Basically, it’s better to be safe than sorry. “New onset of these symptoms should be suspicious for COVID-19, and patients should isolate themselves until they contact their primary care for additional instructions,” Dr. Holbrook says. Dr. Schaffner stresses that you should call your doctor’s office—don’t go to the waiting room. “If you have COVID-19, you can infect others,” he points out.
Once you connect with your doctor, they'll probably want to test you for COVID-19 and do a physical exam, says Michelle DallaPiazza, M.D., an associate professor at the Rutgers New Jersey Medical School. "Doctors would examine a patient to determine whether the sinuses or filled with mucus and/or tender to pressure applied over the areas of the face where the sinuses are located," she says. "They would also listen to the lungs and check in on temperature, pulse, and oxygen levels and inquire about possible exposure to COVID."
But, Dr. DallaPiazza says, "given the overlap in symptoms, the only way to determine the cause with confidence is to perform testing for COVID-19 as well as other viruses."
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