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Health: Sinus Infection, Allergies, and Colds

The pollen count is through the roof and once again, you have a stuffy nose, sinus pain, fatigue and reduced sense of smell and taste. Oh great, another bad allergy season, you think.
And you’d be wrong. These are the hallmarks of a sinus infection, not allergies, though most allergy patients can’t tell the difference.

Thirty-five million Americans suffer from nasal allergies and 7 million suffer from chronic sinus infections, yet most people can’t tell the difference between these two conditions.
Here’s a breakdown of which symptoms belong to which ailments.

The Common Cold: If your congested nose and breathing difficulty last longer than seven to 10 days, it’s probably not a cold. Most likely, it’s allergies, and needs to be treated with an antihistamine, not a decongestant.

Seasonal Allergies – If your sinus congestion is accompanied by watery or itchy eyes and it tends to last several weeks, it’s may be allergies. The problem is, many often treat their allergies like a cold, with over-the-counter decongestants, which will work in the short run but are not advisable. When someone is taking a daytime decongestant every day and a nighttime one to sleep, for weeks and weeks, this is not good. Especially when their allergy might be due to an environmental trigger, such as a feather pillow, that could be easily eliminated.

Sinusitis or Chronic Sinusitis – With sinusitis, the nasal passageways become inflamed and the liter or more of mucus created every day by your body gets backed up in the sinuses. This is when you get patients complaining of headache, pressure or pain in their face and chronic fatigue.

A headful of mucus is an exhausted head, one that’s hard to lift off the pillow and patients can be irritable and fatigued on most days,“ says Silvers. If you suffer from facial tenderness, pressure or pain, headache behind the eyes and forehead, or loss of taste or smell and fatigue, you may have sinusitis.

If you experience this three or more times a year, you may have chronic sinusitis, and should consult with your physician or an ear, nose and throat specialist. What most people don’t know, is that you can have sinusitis without having a runny or stuffy nose or difficulty breathing, because the mucus is congested further back in the sinuses.

If you suffer from any of the above symptoms and they do not resolve within a week or so (and hence are unlikely to be a cold or flu), you should consider seeing your physician, who may refer you to an allergist or an ear, nose and throat specialist. The severity of your facial pain, headache and sensation of pressure is probably the most important factor in distinguishing sinus infections from allergies. Allergies usually don’t cause nearly as much pain and pressure as sinus infections do.

Another way to tell the difference between allergies and sinus infections is to note how they develop and how long they last. Sinus infections don’t just suddenly appear out of nowhere; they always follow either allergies or an upper respiratory infection or cold that has been present for at least 10 days. Untreated sinus infections typically last about two weeks. In contrast, allergies tend to be seasonal; their intensity is affected by the local allergen count.

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An itchy, runny nose and itchy, watery eyes – medically known as conjunctivitis – are an indication of allergic rhinitis, also known as hay fever. They are not a sign of a sinus infection, but if you suffer from allergies, you may have these symptoms along with your sinus symptoms.

Most likely, right about now, many of the readers of this column are dealing with springtime, seasonal allergies.

Allergies can produce many of the same cold-like symptoms as a sinus infection, including sinus pressure, a runny nose and congestion. But the condition itself, called allergic rhinitis, is different. It is caused by an allergic response to allergens, such as pollen, dust mites or pet dander.

Pollen season can begin as early as February and last through October, although weather patterns and your location can alter the start and end dates. If you’re already dreading the return of sneezing, sniffles, stuffiness, and itchy, watery or dry eyes, take steps to keep allergy symptoms from activating your immune system.

Spring pollen is now at our doors and can often look like a fine dusting of snow. Sometimes it’s white but often pollen is yellow and can leave a powdery layer on your car and windows. At that point it may seem obvious why pollen could be irritating your eyes and sinus passages. Yet pollen, even when unseen, can cause the body’s immune system to overreact. The body thinks the pollen is a hostile invader and releases antibodies and chemicals (histamine) to defend itself. It’s the histamine which is released into the blood that causes the runny nose and sneezing.

What can you do about allergies?

Millions of people search for allergy remedies and take antihistamines to block the histamines from building up in the blood. People who do this can have success, but at a price. Many report drowsiness, constipation, anxiety and dry mouth. Ultimately, we don’t know the long-term effects of these synthetic drugs on our bodies. Use caution when taking them on a regular basis.

If you suspect your nasal congestion and other symptoms are the result of sinus problems rather than allergies, you may just need to be patient, take care of yourself and use over-the-counter medications as needed until the infection clears. However, if symptoms last for more than two weeks, or if they are severe, make an appointment to see your doctor.

Remember, I’m not a doctor. I just sound like one. Take good care of yourself and live the best life possible!

By Glenn Ellis

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