Determining if you have a sinus infection or bronchitis isn’t always as easy as you might think. The two conditions share several symptoms and both, typically, start out as the common cold. In fact, a sinus infection, also known as sinusitis, occurs when a cold infects the hollow bones under your eyes and in your cheeks and forehead, otherwise known as your sinuses. Bronchitis occurs when a cold migrates to your chest, causing swelling and irritation in the bronchial tubes that carry air into your lungs.
Symptoms of a Sinus Infection
The primary symptoms of a sinus infection could be initially mistaken for the common cold, including a stuffed up nose and a decrease in your senses of taste and smell. However, other symptoms such as pain or pressure around the sinuses, achy teeth, and thick yellow or green mucus indicate that your cold has progressed into a sinus infection. Additionally, cold symptoms that last longer than a week may be a sign you have sinusitis. Other symptoms associated with a sinus infection include:
- Achy teeth or jaw
- Ear pressure
- Bad breath
- Post-nasal drip
- Phlegm-producing cough or a cough that gets worse at night
Symptoms of Bronchitis
There are two types of bronchitis, acute and chronic.
Acute bronchitis occurs for a defined period of time before resolving and is linked to the common cold. The most common symptoms that indicate a cold has settled in your chest and evolved into acute bronchitis is a cough that lasts 10 to 20 days, as well as a cough that produces mucus that is green, yellow, or clear.
Chronic bronchitis is considered a type of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and is not caused by a cold. Instead, the chronic form of bronchitis is a long-term condition where the inflamed bronchi produce a lot of mucus. This leads to coughing, as well as difficulty getting air in and out of the lungs.
Treatment for Sinusitis and Bronchitis
You can treat a sinus infection at home with a combination of medications such as antihistamines, nasal decongestant sprays, topical nasal corticosteroid sprays, and nasal saline washes. All of these methods can help address the inflammation and swelling that occur in the nasal passages and sinus openings due to a sinus infection.
However, topical nasal decongestants should only be used for three or four days, as overuse can result in dependency. Likewise, over-the-counter nasal decongestants and antihistamines may contain drying agents that can thicken mucus and should be used sparingly and with caution so as to not cause additional congestion.
Home remedies for bronchitis include increasing the amount of fluid you consume and using a cool-mist humidifier. Drinking more fluids can help to thin the mucus in the lungs. Using a humidifier can soothe irritated airways.
The most common medications that can assist with bronchitis are bronchodilators and decongestants.
Bronchodilators can provide relief by opening tight air passages in the lungs. If you experience any wheezing, a doctor may prescribe one for you. Decongestants may relieve some of the symptoms associated with bronchitis. Because bronchitis is generally caused by a virus, antibiotics are not helpful in its treatment.
When to Seek Medical Assistance
Most sinus infections will go away on their own. According to Harvard Medical School, about 85% of sinusitis cases will clear up without the use of antibiotics. How can you know that your sinus infection falls into the 15% that need medical intervention?
Seek medical care if you experience a thick, colorful nasal discharge or facial pressure and pain for at least 10 days, or if your symptoms seem to improve then worsen, no matter the time period. Complications from a sinus infection are rare, but when they do occur, they are serious, including brain infections or abscesses.
You should seek immediate medical help if you experience:
- a fever over 102 F
- sudden and severe pain in the face or head
- double vision or trouble seeing
- confusion or problems thinking clearly
- a stiff neck
- shortness of breath
These could be warning signs of a more serious condition, like meningitis.
Similar to sinus infections, bronchitis typically does not require a trip to the doctor’s office. However, if you have a fever over 100.4 F, a cough that is not better after 7 to 10 days, or any unexplained weight loss in conjunction with your bronchitis, it is important to contact your medical provider because you may have pneumonia. It is also time to seek emergency care if you are experiencing chest pain or trouble breathing with your cough, if you are coughing up blood or if you have a barking cough that makes it hard for you to talk or swallow. Additionally, age plays a factor in seeking treatment for bronchitis. If you are 75 or older and have a cough that won’t go away, even if you don’t have other symptoms, it is a good idea to contact your doctor.
Preventing Sinus Infections and Bronchitis
The best way to prevent both sinus infections and bronchitis is to wash your hands regularly and try to minimize your contact with someone who has a cold.
If you have allergies, try to manage those symptoms well and avoid allergens as much as possible. Both can reduce your risk of developing a sinus infection. This includes avoiding cigarette smoke and other air contaminants, which can irritate and inflame the lungs and nasal passages.
Finally, regular use of a humidifier adds moisture to the air and may help prevent sinusitis. It is critical, however, to regularly clean the humidifier to assure it is free of mold.
There is some evidence that an annual flu shot can reduce your chances of getting bronchitis, as flu viruses have been shown to be a significant cause of bronchitis. Additionally, avoiding cold and damp environments can reduce your risk of developing bronchitis.
At Columbia Allergy, we are experts in the treatment of asthma or allergies. Our providers are here to help with a patient-focused approach. Contact us at any of our convenient locations in California, Oregon, Idaho, or Washington to learn more about how we can help with your unique challenges and goals.