Allergies vs. Sinus Infections: What’s the Difference?

Colds, allergies, and sinus problems can cause similar symptoms, so it’s hard to properly self-diagnose and treat your condition. Seeing a doctor for a proper diagnosis is a simple solution.

By Dr. David Bortniker

In recent years, doctors have become increasingly frustrated with patients self-diagnosing everything from a simple headache to congestive heart failure.  Since medical information is so easily accessible online now, the temptation to self-diagnose is very strong, which can pose serious health threats, such as improper treatment.  

One very common and often misleading self-diagnosis is distinguishing whether we have allergies or a sinus infection (sinusitis).  In a recent survey of over 600 asthma and allergy patients, researchers from the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America found that about half of the patients self-diagnosed their symptoms as allergies, when they were actually infected with sinusitis.

As you can see below, colds, allergies, and sinus problems can cause similar symptoms, so it’s hard to properly self-diagnose and self-treat your condition.  Seeing a doctor for a proper diagnosis is a simple solution to finding the right treatment.

The Common Cold

  • Description: A viral infectious disease that affects the upper respiratory system
  • Symptoms: Congestion, difficulty breathing, runny nose, fatigue
  • Onset: Within 1-3 days of exposure to the virus
  • Duration: 5-7 days



  • Description: Your body is attacking allergens, therefore producing histamine, which causes symptoms to appear and triggers mild to severe reactions
  • Symptoms: Congestion, difficulty breathing, watery or itchy eyes, sneezing, itchy nose, throat and eyes, wheezing, runny nose
  • Onset: Immediately after exposure to allergen, or at the same time each year if seasonal
  • Duration: As long as you’re exposed to the allergen, or dependent upon treatment



  • Description: Infection in the sinus cavities because of inflammation caused by viruses, bacteria, fungi, allergies or environmental factors
  • Symptoms: Congestion, headache, pressure in the face, facial tenderness, loss of taste or smell, chronic fatigue, fever, cough, nasal drip
  • Onset: May develop after a cold or can be triggered by allergies
  • Duration: A few weeks to years, depending on proper treatment


So, when should you see a doctor?  If your symptoms worsen after 7 days or if you’re suffering from a fever, you should schedule an appointment with your physician.  People suffering from chronic sinus infections tend to misdiagnose their condition as allergies or effects of the common cold, missing out on advanced treatment options, including minimally invasive sinus surgery, which can help to relieve discomfort long-term.  While there are at-home therapies to help relieve pressure and pain, your healthcare professional will be able to properly diagnose and treat your individual condition.  

David Bortniker, M.D., is an ear, nose and throat specialist who performs minimally-invasive sinus surgery at Somerset Medical Center.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.


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