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Is it a Cold, Sinus or an Allergy?

February 25, 2019

All Posts by MinuteClinic

Here's how a medical provider can help you figure out which one you or your child might have.

Spring is the season of colds, sinus infections and seasonal allergies (also known as hay fever). The problem is, all three of these conditions have overlapping symptoms.

If you or one of your children is feeling under the weather, below is a wealth of information about which symptoms tend to go with which condition, from watery eyes to bad breath.

Cold vs. sinus infection vs. hay fever

Though the three can mimic each other, there are some basic differences between a cold, a sinus infection and allergies/hay fever.

  • Cold: Adults get an average of two to four colds a year, with children averaging six to eight colds, according to the American Lung Association. A cold is defined as a minor infection of the nose and throat, caused by one of 200 different viruses, Colds are highly contagious.
  • Sinus infection: Sinus infections can be either bacterial or viral. A sinus infection is really the infection of the fluid in your sinuses, which becomes blocked or trapped within the sinuses. Both colds and hay fever can lead to sinus infections, so while the sinus infection itself isn't contagious, the virus that may have caused it is.
  • Hay fever: Hay fever, or allergic rhinitis, happens when your immune system attacks an allergen, such as pollen (but also dust or pet dander) and releases histamine, which causes symptoms similar to a cold. Hay fever is not contagious (though it's often genetic—a parent who has allergies is more like to have a child with allergies).

Questions a medical provider may ask

While your health care provider is the only one who can make an official diagnosis, here are some questions a medical provider might ask, to help you narrow down what's ailing you or your child.

How long have you/your child been feeling this way?

Why the answer matters: Colds tend to last about a week, but can last longer. If symptoms such as runny nose, sore throat and cough have lasted 10 days or more and are getting worse, it may be time to call the doctor, because it could indicate an infection. For allergies, the symptoms are often more constant (especially if it's due to an indoor allergen) or may come and go during the spring when pollen counts vary.

How old is your child?

Why the answer matters: According to Children's Hospital Los Angeles, a child's sinuses in the forehead don't begin developing until around age six, and usually don't have the potential to become infected until the teen years. By contrast, any age child can get a cold, including infants. Children can also develop hay fever (though seasonal allergies are more likely to develop after the age of 10).

Do you/your child have aches?

Why the answer matters: A cold sometimes has aches, but allergies never do. Sinus infections may have body aches, but are more likely to have symptoms such as dental pain, ear pain or tenderness in the face.

Do you/your child have a fever?

Why the answer matters: A cold rarely has a fever, an allergy never does and a sinus infection might. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), you should seek care if your child has a fever higher than 100.4 degrees, or is younger than three months of age and has a fever.

Do you/your child have itchy eyes?

Why the answer matters: Itchy, watery eyes are a common allergy symptom. This is rarely a symptom of a cold or a sinus infection.

Have you noticed that you/your child have bad breath?

Why the answer matters: Bad-smelling breath may be a symptom of a sinus infection.

Have you recently had an upper respiratory infection (URI)?

Why the answer matters: Children or adults who have recently had a URI are more likely to develop a sinus infection, according to Children's Hospital Los Angeles.

Spring is a tough season for the sniffles, but your local MinuteClinic, located at select CVS pharmacies and Targets, can be a good resource for learning more about the different over-the-counter medications that may help ease symptoms for both children and adults.