What is a sinus infection vs. COVID-19 coronavirus?

If you have symptoms like nasal congestion and swelling around the bridge of nose and eyes, you may have sinus infection. But if you are experiencing shortness of breath or chills along with other symptoms, you may have COVID infection.
If you have symptoms like nasal congestion and swelling around the bridge of nose and eyes, you may have sinus infection. But if you are experiencing shortness of breath or chills along with other symptoms, you may have COVID infection.

As doctors and researchers continue to learn more about COVID-19 and the novel coronavirus, you might be wondering how to tell if that is what’s causing your symptoms. Some symptoms of a sinus infection (also known as sinusitis) can be similar to those of coronavirus. However, there are some important and noticeable differences between a sinus infection vs. coronavirus.

What is a sinus infection? 

Inside your skull, there are open spaces that are filled with air. These cavities are called sinuses, and they are connected to the air passages of your nose. Your sinuses produce mucus, which helps to sweep bacteria and other microbes out of your nasal passage. Sinusitis — or a sinus infection — happens when these cavities become clogged with mucus and get infected or inflamed.

What is COVID-19 coronavirus?

COVID-19 is a new infectious disease that causes influenza-like symptoms; it largely impacts the respiratory system.  These symptoms are different depending on whether you have a sinus infection vs. coronavirus. COVID-19 has symptoms like cough, fever, and in extreme cases, difficulty breathing, and death.

What are symptoms and signs of a sinus infection vs. COVID-19 coronavirus?

Symptoms of a sinus infection

A sinus infection can happen because of a bacterial or viral infection (like a cold or the flu) or in the aftermath of a flare-up of environmental allergies.

Symptoms of a sinus infection include:

Symptoms of COVID-19 Coronavirus

Symptoms of coronavirus infection include:

Some serious symptoms can indicate a severe case, where you’ll want to call your doctor for emergency care immediately. These severe symptoms can include:

  • Chest pain
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Trouble staying awake

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Diagnosis for sinus infection vs. COVID-19 coronavirus

Diagnosis for sinus infection

Your doctor will examine you and ask about your symptoms, including where you are feeling discomfort and whether you have recently been sick with a cold or other illness. 

Your doctor can typically diagnose a sinus infection based on your symptoms. Based on this information, your doctor will likely be able to determine whether you have infected or inflamed sinuses. If your sinus problems are chronic or recur often, a doctor who specializes in allergies called an allergist may do some allergy tests to try to help figure out the cause. 

If your sinus infection has been going on for a long time, or you have frequent infections in your sinuses, your doctor may use other procedures to assess the problem. Using a long, flexible camera called a nasal endoscope, your doctor may look into your sinus cavities to see their condition. Alternatively, your doctor may recommend a computerized tomography (CT) scan to assess the infection.

Diagnosis for COVID-19 coronavirus

If you suspect you might have COVID-19 coronavirus, consult local sources about testing availability and sites. Coronavirus can be confirmed by a viral test — often a nose swab — that tells you if you have an active infection or by a test for antibodies, which would be mean you had a past infection.

Treatments for sinus infection vs. COVID-19 coronavirus

Treatments for sinus infection

Up to 70% of people recover from a sinus infection without the use of prescription medications. Usually, symptoms go away within a week to 10 days. 

If your doctor determines that your sinusitis was caused by a bacterial infection, taking antibiotics can help relieve your symptoms more quickly. 

If your sinus infection is extremely serious or is a chronic condition, your doctor may refer you to an ear, nose, and throat specialist who may suggest surgery. Some people have anatomical factors that make them more prone to sinus infections, and surgery can help make changes to prevent recurrent infections.

Home care for sinus infection

There are some ways to manage your sinus infection symptoms at home that can bring some relief:

  • Nasal decongestant sprays (used for no more than 3 or 4 days to avoid rebound phenomenon)
  • Nasal saline washes
  • Over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers or decongestants
  • Breathing warm, moist air
  • Warm compresses on the face, nose, and forehead 

Additional suggestions include:

  • Staying well-hydrated by drinking plenty of fluids
  • Sleeping with your head elevated to promote drainage
  • Consuming warm food and drinks (tea, soup, etc.)

Treatments for COVID-19 coronavirus

Unlike sinusitis, COVID-19 is a respiratory illness, and though the coronavirus can enter your body through your nasal passages, there is currently no indication that it causes sinus infections. Since most COVID-19 infections do not cause a stuffy or runny nose, it is not associated with sinusitis at this point.

If you believe that you might have COVID-19, contact your doctor to learn more about testing availability.

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Possible complications and side effects of sinus infection vs. COVID-19 coronavirus

Complications and side effects of sinus infection

Though the vast majority of sinus infections resolve without medical intervention, a serious sinus infection that is left untreated can cause serious complications. It is possible for an infection to spread into your eyes, skull bones, meninges, or brain. Contact your doctor immediately if you experience:

  • High fever
  • Severe headache
  • Mental confusion
  • Stiff neck
  • Swollen, red, painful eye(s)
  • Impaired vision
  • Difficulty breathing, speaking, or swallowing

Complications and side effects of COVID-19 coronavirus

Some cases of COVID-19 Coronavirus have uncomfortable but relatively mild symptoms, like the flu. Some cases are more severe, requiring hospitalization, and people may experience lasting effects.

Many people with COVID-19 Coronavirus recover fully and regain their health, but some people experience long-term side effects including fatigue, pain, and breathing trouble, as well as recurring headaches or fever and a more lasting depression, among others. Because this virus is relatively new, doctors aren’t sure yet about the significance these extended symptoms may have over time. 

If you are unsure whether your symptoms are caused by a sinus infection vs. COVID-19 coronavirus, your doctor will be able to help determine the source of your symptoms and the best course of treatment. 

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Medically Reviewed on 3/1/2021
References
American Academy of Allergy Asthma and Immunology: “Sinusitis.”

American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology: “Sinus Infection”

Cedars Sinai: “Sinus Conditions & Treatments.”

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Symptoms of Coronavirus.”

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Testing for COVID-19.”

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Things to Know about the COVID-19 Pandemic.”

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Long-Term Effects of COVID-19.”

Cooper University Healthcare: “COVID-19 and Sinusitis.”

Cooper University Healthcare: “Sinusitis.”

Harvard Health Publishing: “Sinusitis.”

NYU Langone: “Surgical Treatment for Chronic Sinusitis.”

Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center: “Do you have a sinus infection or COVID-19?”