Just like snow and colder temperatures, one sure sign of winter is nasal congestion. While the common cold (caused by a virus) is often the culprit behind a stuffy nose, sinusitis (caused by a bacterial infection) may have similar symptoms, making it difficult to distinguish between the two.
The main difference between a cold and bacterial sinusitis is how long symptoms last. Most people with a cold have symptoms such as a stuffy nose, post-nasal drip, sore throat, cough, loss of smell, ear and dental pain, and fatigue for less than a week before noticing improvement. Bacterial sinusitis is more likely when symptoms persist for more than 10 days or worsen after initial improvement. Additionally, people with sinusitis are more likely to have discolored nasal discharge and experience facial pain or pressure.
Most bacterial sinus infections will resolve within 14 days. To treat the symptoms, rest and fluids are recommended. Drinking at least three extra glasses of water a day helps to thin mucus trapped in the sinuses and improve drainage. Additionally, rinsing the nasal passages with salt water (saline), known as nasal irrigation, can help drain infected mucus. Nasal irrigation kits are inexpensive and available at neighborhood drugstores. Keeping the nasal passages moist with steam – either with a hot shower or by carefully covering your head with a towel over a pot of boiling water – also aids drainage. Using a nasal decongestant spray for no longer than three days also helps to drain mucus.
For young children with stuffy noses, nasal saline drops or sprays can thin secretions and relieve congestion. Older children may tolerate nasal irrigation. If symptoms persist for either adults or children, antibiotics can be used to treat bacterial sinus infections, but won’t help fight common cold viruses.
To keep the inside of the nose healthy during the winter, I encourage patients to use a humidifier at night. Some people may benefit from using nasal saline sprays and applying petroleum jelly to the inside of the nose to keep it moist. To increase the humidity of the air you inhale, wear a scarf over your nose and mouth when outdoors. Frequent and thorough hand washing also helps prevent the spread of germs that cause infection.
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