Allergic Rhinitis vs. Sinus Infection

Allergic Rhinitis vs. Sinus Infection

Allergic rhinitis is often mistaken for a sinus infection and vice versa. However, these two conditions are quite different. There are also hundreds of cold viruses that can get you sick, causing similar symptoms to sinus infections and rhinitis.

Cold Viruses

Once a cold virus enters your respiratory system, your immune defense launches a counter-attack. The body’s immune system is a defense against germs, and its response brings on symptoms such as a stuffy nose or a cough. Viruses that cause colds are contagious, and you pick them up from anyone who is infected. They are transmitted in the air through sneezing and coughing, when you shake hands with someone, or on doorknobs and other surfaces you touch. When a cold last for weeks, it can lead to a sinus infection.


When you come in contact with something you are allergic to, your immune system becomes overactive. Common allergens are dust, pollen, and pet dander. When the allergen irritates you, your body releases histamine, which is a chemical that swells the nasal passageways. This causes coughing and sneezing. Unlike a cold, allergies are not contagious. However, people have a tendency to inherit this condition.

Sinus Infection

Nasal blockage caused by allergies will increase the risk for sinus infection. A sinus infection occurs from blocked mucus that is infected with bacteria. Facial pain, a sensation of pressure, and headache are all signs of a sinus infection. Many patients also report upper teen pain. A sinus infection tends to get progressively worse over the course of several days. Many people often experience fever with a sinus infection.

Sinusitis involves inflammation of the sinuses, which are skull cavities that are filled with air. The infectious agent can be viral (as with a cold), bacterial, allergic, or fungal. Any persistent inflammation will cause inability to drain the sinuses, and symptoms include hypoxia, decrease mucus clearance, and mucus retention.

Differences between Colds, Sinus Infections, and Allergies

A cold will typically only last a few days (5-14) whereas allergies persists for months. With a sinus infection, it is usually preceded by a cold or allergies, and it can persist for a few weeks. Colds and sinus infections are more common during the winter months, but allergies tend to flare up during the spring and fall. With allergies, there is usually no fever or body aches, but with a cold or sinus infection, these symptoms are common. Allergic rhinitis don’t usually cause headache, but infections of the upper respiratory tract will cause facial and head pain.

Prevalence of Allergies and Sinusitis

According to recent statistics, nasal allergies affect around 50 million people in the U.S. Allergies affect around 30% of adults and 40% of children, with an increasing incidence. Allergies and asthma is the fifth leading chronic disease in adults, and the third most common chronic condition among persons age 18 years and younger. In 2012, 11 million people in the U.S. were diagnosed with allergic rhinitis.

The prevalence of acute sinusitis is also on the rise, according to results from the National Ambulatory Medical Care Survey. In 2011, 13.6 million outpatient visits were related to sinusitis in the U.S. In addition, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that 40 million people have sinusitis each year, with 33 million cases of chronic sinusitis reported annually.

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