Many people confuse seasonal allergies with sinus infections. The symptoms are similar--stuffy, painful nose and sinus cavities, often with sneezing, coughing and other cold symptoms. However there are some important differences between allergies and sinus infections that need to be addressed for proper prevention and treatment.
Allergies are the body's reaction to allergens in the surrounding environment. These allergens may include dust, pollen, mold spores, pet dander and food. People may be allergic to one or more of these items, so determining the cause of an allergic reaction can be difficult.
When someone is exposed to an allergen to which he is sensitive, his body produces histamines, a chemical that causes the lining of the nose, sinuses and the eyes to become inflamed. These linings produce a fluid in an attempt to fight off the allergen. When this happens, the person begins sneezing and wheezing. His eyes may start watering and itching. These symptoms last as long as the person is exposed to the allergen.
Because sinus infections most often are the result of the common cold, its symptoms are very similar to allergic rhinitis. The mucous membranes lining the nose become inflamed by a virus or bacteria. Eventually the mucous membranes in the frontal and maxillary sinuses (forehead and cheekbones) also become inflamed, creating a greenish discharge. When the nose and sinus cavities become filled with the discharge, pressure builds and the person feels may feel pain right behind the eyebrows or in the cheeks. Her nose will become stuffy. Other symptoms include drainage down the back of the throat, sneezing, coughing, swelling in the face, tiredness and fever. These symptoms may last for several weeks if untreated.
Allergies can be treated with a variety of over-the-counter medicines:
Antihistamines such as diphenhydramine (brand-name Benadryl), loratadine (Claratin) or Cetirizine (Zyrtec) block the production of histamines.
Decongestants reduce blood flow to the affected area, creating more room to clear the congestion. Common types of oral decongestants are phenyloephrine and pseudoephedrine (brand-name Sudafed). Common nasal decongestants (nasal sprays) include oxymatazoline (Afrin) and phenylephrine (Neo-Synephrine)
Sinus infection symptoms can be relieved with over-the-counter decongestants. They can also be relieved by gently blowing the nose. Inhaling steam (e.g., in a hot shower or over a hot mug of coffee) or a saline nasal spray can also bring relief. However, it is likely that an antibiotic will be needed to cure the infection.
Allergy suffers should consult an allergist to determine which allergens affect them and, of course, avoid those allergens as much as possible. Depending on the severity and the type of allergy, they should take care to clean bed linens and other laundry regularly in hot water and dust and vacuum weekly. (Those with very severe symptoms should arrange for someone else to perform these tasks.) Homeowners should fix leaks and clean moldy surfaces with a bleach solution and close drains and cracks where insects can enter. Chronic allergy sufferers may want to start taking a mast cell inhibitor, which prevents the release of histamines, throughout allergy season.
Those who frequently suffer sinus infections should use a humidifier or vaporizer to add moisture to the air and sleep with the head slightly elevated to promote drainage. They should also treat cold symptoms promptly. Wash your hands thoroughly and often to prevent the spread of germs.
Decongestants such as pseudoephedrine, have been known to increase blood pressure in some patients. Other side effects include sleeplessness and irritability.
Likewise, antihistamines are well-known to cause drowsiness. Do not use if you are planning to drive or operate heavy machinery.
When using steam to relieve sinus pressure, use caution. Steam is hot and can burn the nasal passages.
This article is not intended as a substitute for professional medical help. Consult a doctor or pharmacist for specific questions.
- American Academy of Allergy Asthma and Immunology: Patient Information
- Sinusitis Information
- The AMA Family Medical Guide; Jeffrey R.M. Kunz M.D. and Asher J. Finkel, M.D., editors; 1987