Allergies vs. Sinusitis: Understanding the Difference

allergy meds

If you are experiencing symptoms like a stuffy nose, sneezing or coughing—you may be wondering if you’re just dealing with allergies, or if you have an infection or other illness going on. This is why it’s important to understand the signs and symptoms of allergies so you can determine if you have allergies or sinusitis.

What Are Allergies?

Allergies are very common and occur as a result of your immune system’s reaction to certain allergens. Different people have different allergies that can set them off with some of the most common being pollen, dust and pet dander. 

While some people are born with allergies, they can actually develop at any point in your life, including when you are an adult. They can be caused by a single negative response to a substance. When this happens, your immune system will respond by releasing a chemical known as histamine.

Histamines are what cause all of the unwanted allergy-related symptoms, including:

  • Headache
  • Sneezing
  • Stuffy or runny Nose
  • Congestion
  • Feelings of fogginess
  • Watery eyes
  • Skin rashes

When you are struggling with allergies, you will experience these symptoms whenever you are exposed to these irritants. This is one of the easiest ways to determine that your symptoms are coming from an allergic reaction as opposed to some type of disease or infection.

In some cases, individuals with severe allergies can develop skin rashes and cold-like conditions. This is also known as allergic rhinitis. There unfortunately is no real “treatment” for allergies. However, there are medications that you can use to manage your allergy-related symptoms. The best thing that you can do if you have allergies, is to get tests to determine the exact cause of your allergies and avoid those allergens whenever possible.

What is Sinusitis?

Sinusitis, also known as sinus infections, can sometimes present in a similar manner to allergies. Sinusitis occurs when your nasal passages get infected. When you have an infection in this area, your nasal passage can become inflamed and irritated. Sinusitis is typically caused by some type of virus. 

When the nasal cavity gets inflamed like this, it will cause mucus to build up in your nasal passage. When it gets stuck it causes congestion, sneezing, runny nose and headaches. These symptoms can vary in severity depending. Sinusitis can last for days or even weeks. Unlike allergies, which can cause temporary symptoms when you are exposed to an allergen, sinus infections are consistent and don’t get better or worse depending on outside irritants.

While the symptoms may have some overlap, since sinusitis and allergies have different causes, they are treated in different ways.

Symptom Comparisons

So, how do allergies and sinuses compare when it comes to symptoms? Take a look at this chart below.

 AllergiesSinus Infection
Nasal CongestionXX
Pain Around Cheeks/Eyes X
Thick Yellow/Green Discharge X
Difficulty Breathing Through NoseXX
Tooth Pain X
Fever X
Bad Breath X
Watery EyesX 

While there are definitely some overlap, this chart will help you understand the difference between these two conditions. While some people notice they only experience their allergy symptoms around certain irritants, you could be having an allergic reaction to something they are exposed to constantly such as dirt or pet dander.

When you notice symptoms like the aforementioned ones, make sure to reference this chart to try to get to the bottom of your symptoms.


If you have severe congestion with either sinusitis or with allergies, then you will want to take a similar approach when it comes to treatment. Typically, an over-the-counter decongestant, like nasal sprays or oral medications, will help break up mucus in the nasal cavity. In some more serious situations, where congestion may be impacting your day-to-day life, you can get prescription decongestants from a doctor to help break up your nasal cavity congestion.

If you are strictly dealing with allergies, these can also be treated with antihistamines. However, these antihistamines won’t treat your sinus infection, as they’re strictly meant to treat the body’s reaction to an allergen.

If you are dealing with a viral infection, here’s how to deal with sinusitis:

  • Rest as much as possible. There is nothing better than sleep and rest when your body is fighting off a virus.
  • Drink plenty of fluids. Typically, the best approach is drinking clear liquids such as water or broth.
  • Use saline mist sprays to hydrate the nasal passage while your body works through your congestion.
  • If you were already taking allergy medications for existing allergy issues, don’t stop taking your medications just because you are having a sinus infection, otherwise it can make your sinuses feel worse.

Remember that an actual sinus infection cannot be treated with antibiotics. However, if your doctor assumes that your symptoms or sinus issue is bacteria-related then they may prescribe an antibiotic to help you get over your illness.


While it’s important to know how to treat allergies or sinus issues when they arise, its jus as important to know the proper prevention steps as well. The only thing that is better than knowing how to treat a sinus issue is being able to prevent these problems from happening in he first place.

How to Prevent a Sinus Infection

If you want to prevent sinus infections, the best thing you can do is take care of yourself. During cold and flu season try to stay as hydrated as possible and get plenty of sleep. Taking vitamin C regularly is also a natural way to boost your immune system so you can have even more protection during this time of year.

How to Prevent Allergies

Unfortunately, allergies can be difficult to prevent, especially if you have seasonal allergies. These are typically most prevalent in the spring time when pollen is at its highest. The best you can do is to try to avoid going outside as much as possible.

If you have other allergy triggers such as dander or pet hair, the only way to prevent allergies is to expose yourself to your triggers as little as possible.

While these steps can help, there is no surefire way to guarantee you won’t deal with either allergy issues or sinus infections.

When to See a Doctor

If you have allergies, you don’t necessarily need to see your doctor, unless you suddenly suspect that you have allergies but have never noticed them or been diagnosed before. You should also see a doctor if you feel as though your allergies are getting noticeably worse.

Sinus infections on the other hand, are caused by viruses. You typically don’t need to see a doctor for sinus infections unless they continue to worsen or last longer than two weeks even if you work on managing your symptoms. In these situations, you may want to visit your doctor for some relief.

Allergies and sinus infections are going to happen. The best thing you can do is to make sure that you know what you are dealing with, how to prevent each and when you should see a doctor for additional help. This will help you make sure you can continue to feel your best even during peak cold, flu and allergy seasons.

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