Do You Have a Common Cold or Sinusitis?


By: Elizabeth Obigwe, B.Sc. Anatomy. Freelance Writer; with medical review and editorial support by the DLHA Team

Black woman holding the bridge of her nose in apparent sinus pain

Black woman holding the bridge of her nose in apparent sinus pain





It is typical to suspect the common cold when you have a runny or stuffy nose, but that is not always the case, especially if the symptoms last longer than usual. You could be having sinusitis also called rhinosinusitis (RS), which could be acute (ARS), sub-acute or chronic (CRS). This piece discusses how you can distinguish between the two conditions to know which one you may be suffering from. This may help ensure that you get the right treatment for your condition. 



What Is the Common cold?


The common cold, which can also be referred to as viral acute rhinosinusitis (vARS) is a viral infection that affects the upper respiratory tract, particularly the nose and throat. It is one of the most prevalent illnesses worldwide, especially during colder months. This infection is typically caused by rhinoviruses, though other viruses such as coronaviruses and adenoviruses can also be responsible. 

Although contagious, most people will recover from the common cold within a week or two without specific treatment. Rest, hydration, and over-the-counter remedies such as decongestants or pain relievers may help alleviate symptoms.



What Is Sinusitis?


Sinusitis or Rhinosinusitis is a long-lasting inflammation of the sinuses and nasal passages. It typically persists for at least 12 weeks, despite attempts at treatment. 

Sinusitis may present in three clinical forms as follows: [1]

I: Viral Sinusitis (or Common cold, when the episode lasts no more than 10 days and resolves). 

II. Post Viral Sinusitis (when symptoms persist longer than 10 days or worsens after 5 days). 

III. Bacterial Sinusitis (when symptoms lasts up to 12 weeks or longer and three or more of the following symptoms and signs are present: 

  • fever (≥ 38 °C)
  • severe local pain
  • double sickening
  • unilateral disease (with discolored mucus)
  • elevation of inflammatory markers in blood test (i.e., C-reactive protein (CRP)/erythrocyte sedimentation ratio (ESR)


The exact cause of sinusitis may be complex, but several internal and environmental factors may contribute to its development. Unlike the common cold, sinusitis is not contagious in the post viral and bacterial stages. However, the microorganism associated with the bacterial type sinusitis can be transferred from one person to another through surface contact with contaminated objects.



What Do Common Cold and Sinusitis Have in Common?


The commonest cause of a common cold is a virus, so is the cause of viral acute rhinosinusitis. So both conditions may share some similarities. One such similarity is that they both primarily affect the upper respiratory tract, including the nasal passages and sinuses.


Also, both conditions have some symptoms in common including; nasal congestion, runny nose, facial pressure, sore throat, loss of or reduced sense of smell, cough, fever, and fatigue (See Table 1).

Table comparing the clinical features of common cold and sinusitis

Table 1: Comparing the clinical features of the Common cold and Sinusitis. Click on the image to enlarge.



How is Common Cold Different from Sinusitis?


The differences between the conditions will help you decide whether you are suffering from a common cold or sinusitis (See Table 1).


  • Duration


Common Cold: Typically lasts for about 7 to 10 days, although symptoms may persist for up to two weeks.


Sinusitis: Persists for at least 12 weeks, with some cases lasting much longer, often for months or even years when the condition will be said to be chronic rhinosinusitis.


  • Underlying Causes


Common Cold: Caused by viral infections, most commonly by rhinoviruses, but can also be caused by coronaviruses, adenoviruses, or other respiratory viruses.


Sinusitis: The cause of sinusitis may be more complex, but generally involves inflammation of the sinuses and nasal passages. This inflammation can be triggered by various factors such as infections (viral, bacterial or fungal), allergies, structural abnormalities of the nasal passage, immune system dysfunction, or environmental factors.


  • Symptoms


Aside from the symptoms that both conditions have in common, they also have other unique symptoms.


Common Cold: Additional symptoms include watery eyes, itchy eyes, sneezing and chills


Sinusitis: Other possible symptoms of sinusitis are facial pain, reduced sense of taste, bad breath, toothache, ear pain, visual disturbance and worsening of asthma.


  • Contagiousness


Common Cold: Highly contagious, primarily spread through respiratory droplets when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or talks, as well as through contact with contaminated surfaces.


Sinusitis: Sinusitis is not as contagious in the same way as the common cold. However, certain underlying conditions that contribute to sinusitis, such as viral infections or allergies, may be contagious.


  • Diagnosis


Common Cold: Diagnosis is usually based on symptoms and a physical examination. Laboratory tests are not often needed.


Sinusitis: Diagnosis often requires a combination of symptoms, medical history, physical examination, laboratory and imaging tests such as CT scans and endoscopy.


  • Treatment


Common Cold: Treatment is typically focused on relieving symptoms and may include rest, hydration, and over-the-counter remedies such as decongestants, pain relievers, antihistamines, and cough suppressants. Antibiotics are not effective against viral colds.


Sinusitis: Treatment depends on the underlying cause and severity of symptoms. It may include nasal saline irrigations, corticosteroid nasal sprays, decongestants, antihistamines, antibiotics (for bacterial infections), oral corticosteroids, immunotherapy (for allergies), or in some cases, surgery to improve sinus drainage or remove nasal polyps.





By observing the difference in duration, symptoms and causes, among other factors, you may be able to tell whether you have a common cold or sinusitis. However, you may not be able to make a correct diagnosis by yourself. Hence, it is advisable always to consult your healthcare provider especially when symptoms persist for a long time.



1. Jaume F, Valls-Mateus M, Mullol J. Common Cold and Acute Rhinosinusitis: Up-to-Date Management in 2020. Curr Allergy Asthma Rep. 2020 Jun 3;20(7):28. doi: 10.1007/s11882-020-00917-5. Available from:




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Chronic Rhinosinusitis: Diagnosis, Treatment and Prevention Information for Africans

Acute sinusitis: Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis Prevention and Treatment




Published: April 29, 2024

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