When does a common cold become something more serious?

It is the time of year when there are a lot of germs around and many of us will fall foul of the common cold. Although thoroughly unpleasant, a cold in the simplest form is not serious, and many colds should clear up in around seven days. But how do you know if your cold has developed into something more serious?

In some cases, a cold will develop into an infection of the sinuses, known as sinusitis. This is where germs (often associated with cold or flu viruses) have travelled into the sinuses from the upper airways.

How to tell the difference between a cold and sinusitis

A cold is a viral infection, typically bringing symptoms such as congested airways, a runny nose, headache and overall feeling of tiredness or lethargy. In some cases this will be accompanied by a mild fever or a cough. Over-the-counter medicines such as paracetamol, decongestants and lozenges can help offer some relief for these symptoms.

A sinus infection is more painful, as it is caused by more serious inflammation and swelling of nasal cavities. As well as pain around the nose, it can also make sufferers feel that they are experiencing a build up of pressure behind the eyes and face. Those suffering from sinusitis also have a greater feeling of overall congestion compared with a cold, and can expect an unpleasant greenish-yellow discharge from the nose. 

Although a cold can cause a mild headache, if the cold has developed into sinusitis then you can expect a severe headache, and associated pain which can spread to the ears, teeth and jaw too.

Sinusitis isn’t just linked to cold or flu, there can be other triggers such as allergies (like hay fever or sensitivity to pets). Any condition that causes congestion in the nasal passages and sinus drainage channels could result in sinusitis.

When is it time to seek medical assistance?

If you are suffering from sinusitis, continuing with decongestants (in the short term) and pain relief is advised, and a doctor may also prescribe a course of antibiotics to help tackle the infection. It is worth noting that if used for more than several days, decongestants can increase nasal congestion. However, if you have suffered from repeated bouts of sinusitis then you may want to seek specialist help. Treatment for recurrent acute sinusitis can be in the form of medicines, such as steroid nasal sprays and occasionally antibiotics, or surgery.

ENT specialist Mr Julian Hamann offers functional endoscopic sinus surgery (FESS) that remove any blockages that could be preventing the sinuses from draining properly. However, an increasingly popular procedure is a Balloon Sinuplasty which can restructure blocked nasal passages without the need for any bone and tissue being removed and minimal damage to the tissues of the nose. Please call 01892 740671 if you would like to book a consultation to explore your options.