Just about everyone experiences an occasional runny nose and nasal congestion, often without knowing the cause. “It’s common for patients to describe any nasal congestion and drainage as a sinus infection but these conditions are common to other conditions too,” explains Donald Kitain, D.O. a board-certified otolaryngologist (ear, nose and throat specialist) on staff at DMC Huron Valley-Sinai Hospital.
A cold or flu is the likely diagnosis if you have a friend or relative with similar symptoms, as both are infections caused by highly contagious viruses. Patients with a cold may have a sore throat and fever with nasal drainage that has a color. Some achiness and fatigue are common. Typically a cold will go away in four to six days, but in some individuals a viral upper respiratory infection will progress to bacterial sinusitis, which requires medical attention, says Howard Yerman, M.D., a board-certified otolaryngologist and chairman of the Department of Otolaryngology at Huron Valley-Sinai Hospital.
Flu, caused by a number of viral strains, usually has more severe symptoms and potentially more serious consequences, including pneumonia. Patients often have a high fever with intense body aches and fatigue and may be sick longer than the four to six days of a typical cold, according to Dr. Yerman.
The recommended treatment for both colds and flu is similar — “supportive care” — Tylenol, Motrin, rest, and fluids.
Sinus problems are caused by a bacterial infection resulting from a blockage that prevents one or more sinuses from draining. Patients experience severe facial pain near the area of infection. “With an acute sinus infection, patients are likely to have a fever and need antibiotics. For a chronic infection that may last over many months and years, there is no fever but if it is severe, outpatient surgery is recommended,” says Dr. Kitain.
A sinus infection can sometime be diagnosed with a simple examination or may require a CT scan. Sometime polyps or a deviated septum may obstruct the sinuses, preventing drainage and leading to a chronic infection. Dr. Kitain says that image-guided outpatient sinus surgery can alleviate these problems more effectively and more safely than in the past. Sinuplasty is a newer procedure that uses a balloon to dilate the sinus opening to permit fluid drainage.
While allergies also typically result in nasal inflammation, they are not caused by an infection but result from an individual’s sensitivity to certain substances including foods, pets, plants, and environmental materials. Allergies can be seasonal or year-round. They can be treated with medications or injections to desensitize the individual to allergic substances. Some allergic individuals also develop asthma, a chronic, potentially serious respiratory condition.
There is a seasonal aspect to colds and flu, which are more common in the fall and winter. “When people are indoors, we share our germs very well,” comments Dr. Yerman. He recommends good hand-washing technique and the use of humidifiers to enhance the body’s natural defenses to help avoid colds and flu.
For allergic individuals, avoiding the substances that trigger allergies and using preventive medication are essential. Treating allergies and colds will reduce the chance of a sinus problem.
The best defense against all of these conditions is to follow a healthy lifestyle with adequate rest and a healthy diet, as well as getting a flu shot and allergy treatment for those who need it, says Dr. Kitain.