Different Sniffles: Is it a common cold, the flu or a sinus infection? Back »

Written by Bethany Stoutamire (Former SDSU Extension Aging in Place Coordinator AmeriCorps VISTA Member) under the direction and review of Leacey E. Brown.


It’s that time of year, where it seems like everywhere you turn everyone is coughing and sneezing. This year, it seems like we’re seeing a lot of headlines about the flu. The common cold, the flu, and sinus infection may seem like they have similar symptoms, but what is the difference between the three? Below is a chart so you can compare the similarities and differences between the symptoms.

Know the Symptoms

Symptom Influenza (Flu) Common Cold Sinus Infection
Aching in Upper Teeth and Jaw    
X
Achy Muscles
X
Slight
 
Coughing
X
X
X
Drainage from the Nose or Throat    
X
Fatigue/Weakness
X
   
Fever Above 100°F
(Though not everyone who has the flu has a fever)
Low Grade
Occasionally
Halitosis (Bad Breath)    
X
Headache
X
Mild
X
Nasal Congestion
X
X
X
Pain Around the Face    
X
Runny or Stuffy Nose  
X
 
Sneezing  
X
 
Sore Throat
X
X
 
 

Other Similarities & Differences

Both influenza and the common cold are caused by viruses, though they are caused by different viruses (it is also important to note that influenza is different from the noroviruses and rotaviruses that can cause the stomach flu). While the common cold and the flu share many similar symptoms, one difference is that the common cold tends to develop over a period of time while the flu tends to come on suddenly. Symptoms of a cold tend to come on one to three days after exposure from the virus and the recovery usually takes about a week to ten days, though it can take longer to recover if you’re a smoker. For the flu, the virus is most contagious about the day before symptoms first appear to about five days after symptoms after the appearance of symptoms.

Meanwhile a sinus infection, often referred to as acute sinusitis, is often caused by the common cold when the passages around the nasal cavities become swollen and inflamed. This can impact drainage and cause mucus to build up. Most sinus infections are resolved within a week to ten days (a sinus infection that lasts more than twelve weeks despite medical intervention is referred to as chronic sinusitis).

Prevention

It’s never fun being sick. Luckily, however, there are things you can do to decrease your odds of the cold, flu, or a sinus infection.

  • Get the Flu Shot.
    The Center for Disease Control recommends that individuals over the age of six months get the flu shot (however, the CDC recommends not getting the flu shot as a nasal spray as that has not been effective in recent years). Each year, the flu shot contains protections against about three to four strains of the flu that scientists believe will be most prominent that season.
  • Avoid cigarette smoke and air pollution.
    Cigarette smoke and air pollution can irritate your lungs and nasal cavities, making you more prone to sinus infections or colds.
  • Cover your mouth when you sneeze and cough.
    Your loved one will thank you for this. The cold and flu can be spread through water droplets when you sneeze, cough, or talk. Covering your mouth when you sneeze and cough can help prevent the spread of the viruses that cause you to get sick. Likewise, it’s best to avoid close contact with those who are sick themselves.
  • Wash your hands.
    Make sure to use soap and water or, if that’s not available, alcohol based hand sanitizer. Make sure that any young children in your family also wash their hands.
  • Have a healthy lifestyle.
    Eating well, getting enough sleep, and managing stress will help make sure that your immune system is strong and may help prevent colds and other illnesses.

Resources & Additional Readings:

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