How To Tell The Difference Between Bacterial And Viral Sinus Infections

Are you struggling with pressure in your sinuses that make your head feel like it could explode? While you may think it's a lingering cold, it could be a sinus infection.

A sinus infection occurs when your sinuses become inflamed and blocked, typically accompanied by congestion, facial pressure, fever, an overabundance of mucus, and swelling (via Cleveland Clinic). Sinus infections can be bacterial or viral, but most are viral, meaning they are caused by a virus. Bacterial infections can be more serious, but are treatable with antibiotics — unlike viral sinus infections.

Antibiotics won't kill the virus causing your sinus infection. In fact, they could worsen your infection, as you won't get any of the relief but could experience some side effects (via Hudson Valley Sinus Center).

So how can you tell the difference between a bacterial and a viral sinus infection? Unfortunately, doctors say it's not likely you would be able to by symptoms alone. "Symptoms like bad breath, yellow or green mucus, fever and headache are not reliable signs of a bacterial infection," Dr. Raj Sindwani told the Cleveland Clinic. "They can occur with viral infections, too. Even your doctor can't tell if your infection is viral or bacterial based solely on symptoms or an exam."

Treatment options for sinus infections

Time is the main way to discern between a bacterial and a viral sinus infection. Viral sinus infections typically don't last long and you should start feeling better in about a week, according to Hudson Valley Sinus Center. Bacterial sinus infections can last sometimes 10 days or longer, worsening over time instead of getting better. Antibiotics can kill the bacteria and speed up the healing. Doctors may also sample your mucus to determine what type of bacteria caused your infection, in order to properly treat it

While waiting to feel better can be frustrating, there are some treatment options that can help with symptoms. Doctors recommend using a saline spray two to three times daily in each nostril, as well as using a nasal decongestant spray for only a few days to help with relief (via the Cleveland Clinic). You can also take an over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medication like Tylenol or ibuprofen to cut down on sinus swelling. Also, like with many other illnesses, rest and drinking fluids is also recommended.

If you are monitoring a possible sinus infection from home, be sure to consult with your doctor after a week if symptoms have not improved.