Sinus Infection vs. COVID-19: What Are the Differences?

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COVID-19 and sinus infection (sinusitis) can have similar symptoms because they both involve the respiratory system. However, these conditions do not have the same causes.

Here is an overview of how COVID-19 and sinus infections are different, including when you should see your doctor about your symptoms.

White woman holding her nose, her eyes are closed as though she's in pain. She's wearing a cream-colored shirt and the white wall behind her has a bit of shadow creeping in the upper left hand side of the frame.

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Symptoms

During the pandemic, the general public has become more aware of COVID-19 symptoms. While you may experience a fever, headache, and cough if you have COVID, you can also have these and other respiratory symptoms if you have another infection or condition.

Some symptoms are more common in one condition than the other. For example, shortness of breath and difficulty breathing are more likely with COVID-19, while facial pain is more specific to a sinus infection.

The lists of symptoms below are just a starting point and do not include all possible symptoms of COVID-19 or a sinus infection. If you develop any respiratory symptoms and they do not seem to be getting better, it’s important to see your doctor.

Additionally, if you have any symptoms which are in any way associated with COVID-19, you should follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines regarding testing and quarantining and contact your healthcare provider.

Sinus Infection Symptoms

A sinus infection can have a range of symptoms, though they mostly involve the respiratory system.

Possible signs and symptoms of a sinus infection include:

  • Runny nose or cold symptoms that last longer than seven to 10 days
  • Drainage down your throat from your nose
  • Headaches 
  • Facial pain (pain or pressure in your cheeks, nose, ears, and forehead, or between your eyes)
  • Cough
  • Fever
  • Bad breath
  • Sore throat
  • Swelling around the eyes (may get worse in the morning)

COVID-19 Symptoms

The signs and symptoms of COVID-19 often involve the respiratory system, but they can also occur in other parts of the body.

While there is a range of COVID symptoms, some of the most common include:

  • Fever or chills
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Fatigue
  • Headache
  • Muscle or body aches
  • New loss of taste or smell
  • Congestion or runny nose
  • Sore throat
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Diarrhea

Several symptoms of COVID overlap with those of a sinus infection, which means you will not be able to be sure of which condition you have by how you feel alone.

If you have respiratory symptoms, it’s best to talk to your doctor. They can run tests to determine whether or not you have COVID, a sinus infection, or another condition.

Causes

While COVID and sinus infections share some symptoms, they are caused by completely different things.

Sinus Infection Causes

The cause of a sinus infection is inflammation of the sinuses. Sinus infections most often occur after a cold or an allergy flare-up, or in relation to a nasal condition.

For example, the virus that causes the common cold attacks the lining of your sinuses and causes them to swell up. As more mucus is produced, buildup occurs and provides a place for bacteria to grow, which leads to infection.

COVID-19

COVID-19 is caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The virus spreads from person to person, and it can cause mild to severe illness. The best way to protect yourself from COVID is to get vaccinated and practice protective measures like wearing a face mask, social distancing, and washing your hands.

Diagnosis

If you have respiratory symptoms, your doctor can use several tests to find out what is causing them—for example, if you have a sinus infection, COVID, or another condition.

Sinus Infection Diagnosis

A sinus infection is diagnosed based on your symptoms and an examination of your nose and face. Your doctor might check your mucus or do an imaging test to confirm the diagnosis.

COVID-19 Diagnosis

COVID-19 can only be diagnosed through a test that specifically looks for the SARS-CoV-2 virus in your body. The diagnosis cannot be made just by asking you about your symptoms or by doing an exam, because the symptoms can also be caused by other conditions. Additionally, some people who have COVID do not have any symptoms.

Several types of COVID tests are available. Your doctor will decide which is appropriate based on factors like your symptoms and whether you know that you were exposed to someone who has the virus.

You might be able to get an over-the-counter test at your local pharmacy or have a test performed at a local health clinic or pharmacy that is sent off to a lab. You will be notified of your result, which will be either positive (you have COVID) or negative (you do not have COVID).

If you test negative but still have symptoms or were exposed, your doctor might want you to be tested again in a few days.

Treatment

The treatments for a sinus infection and COVID are very different. An accurate diagnosis from a healthcare professional is required to ensure that you get the appropriate treatment.

Sinus Infection Treatment

There are several ways to treat a sinus infection. The appropriate treatment for you will depend on what is causing the infection.

For example, if you have a sinus infection that is caused by allergies, your doctor may prescribe an allergy medicine.

Some common sinus infection treatments include:

  • Saline nasal spray
  • Nasal irrigation (e.g., neti pot)
  • Decongestant medicines
  • Over-the-counter pain relievers (to relieve aches and fever)
  • Allergy medication (if allergies are a cause)

Antibiotics

According to the CDC, antibiotics are usually not needed for viral sinus infections.

Your doctor might take a “watchful waiting” approach to see if your immune system can fight the infection. They might also choose “delayed prescribing,” where they prescribe an antibiotic for you but suggest that you wait a few days before taking it to see if the infection clears up on its own.

Doctors try not to prescribe antibiotics unless they are definitely necessary because the over-prescription of antibiotics contributes to the rise of bacteria that is resistant to these drugs.

COVID-19 Treatment

According to the CDC, there is only one drug that has been approved to treat COVID-19: remdesivir (Veklury).

However, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) can issue emergency use authorizations to allow healthcare providers to use products that are not approved yet to treat COVID-19 if certain legal requirements are met.

The best way to treat COVID-19 depends on how sick a person is. For example, if someone has a mild case, they can generally treat their symptoms at home. People with severe COVID illness usually need to be in the hospital, and some end up needing to be in the intensive care unit (ICU).

Ways that you can deal with a mild COVID infection at home include:

  • Taking medication (ibuprofen or acetaminophen) to reduce fever
  • Resting
  • Staying hydrated (drinking plenty of water or receiving intravenous fluids, if necessary)

If you are hospitalized with COVID, you might be given:

  • Antiviral medications
  • Medications to treat complications (e.g., blood thinners to treat blood clots)
  • Treatments to reduce an overactive immune response and/or support the body’s immune function

Prevention

There are certain things you can do to prevent sinus infections and protect yourself from the COVID-19 virus. Some steps that you can take will help reduce your risk of either condition, but each also has specific precautions that will help lower your risk.

Preventing Sinus Infection

A sinus infection often follows a viral infection, such as a cold or the flu. Therefore, preventing a sinus infection often means trying to avoid the illnesses that usually precede it.

For example, make sure you wash your hands often and try not to touch your face, nose, or eyes during cold/flu season. It’s also important to avoid being around people who are sick.

Getting a flu shot will help protect you from the flu virus, which can cause inflammation in your sinuses and lead to a sinus infection.

If you have allergies, figuring out your triggers and trying to avoid them will help prevent a flare-up of symptoms that could lead to a sinus infection.

Preventing COVID-19

COVID-19 is a viral infection, which means that many of the same steps that you would take to protect yourself from a cold or the flu (such as washing your hands and avoiding people who are sick) can help lower your risk of getting the virus.

There are also other precautions that you should take not just to protect yourself from COVID, but to help ensure that you do not spread the virus to other people.

COVID precautions include:

  • Get vaccinated
  • Wear a mask in indoor public settings
  • Maintain social distance (six feet apart) between you and people who do not live with you
  • Avoid crowds and indoor spaces with poor ventilation
  • Wash your hands properly and often
  • Clean and disinfect high-touch surfaces in your home and/or workplace daily

Summary

COVID-19 and sinus infections both involve the respiratory system. The two conditions can have symptoms that overlap, but some symptoms are more likely to occur in one and not the other.

Sinus infections and COVID are not caused by the same things. COVID is caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus. A sinus infection can happen after a viral illness, but can also be caused by allergies.

The treatments for each condition are also different, which is why it’s important to see a doctor and get an accurate diagnosis. You might need antibiotics for a sinus infection that does not get better on its own with home remedies or over-the-counter medications.

If you have a mild case of COVID, you might be able to rest at home and avoid other people until you recover. However, if you develop severe illness, you may need to receive medical care in the hospital.

A Word From Verywell

If you have respiratory symptoms, you might fear that you have COVID. While it’s possible that you have the virus, your symptoms could also be caused by another condition, such as a cold or a sinus infection.

The only way to know for sure is to see your doctor. They can talk to you about your symptoms, screen you for COVID risk factors, perform diagnostic tests to determine what is making you sick, and make sure that you get the appropriate treatment.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a sinus infection?

A sinus infection (sinusitis) occurs when the lining of your sinuses becomes inflamed. This can happen after you have a cold or from allergies.

The inflammation leads to mucus buildup, which produces congestion and sometimes pain or pressure in your forehead, nose or ears, cheeks, or between your eyes.

How can you tell if you have a sinus infection or COVID-19?

You cannot tell if you have COVID or a sinus infection just based on your symptoms alone. Some symptoms of COVID overlap with those of a sinus infection, but there are also symptoms that are specific to one or the other.

While the symptoms of a sinus infection mostly involve your respiratory system, COVID can cause a range of symptoms that affect other parts of your body (such as your gastrointestinal tract).

It’s also important to note that you can have COVID and not have any symptoms.

What’s the main difference between sinus infection and COVID-19?

The main difference between COVID and a sinus infection is what causes them. A sinus infection is caused by inflammation of the sinuses and often follows a cold or allergy flare-up. COVID-19 is only caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

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Article Sources
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