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How to Differentiate Between Sinusitis and Allergic Rhinitis

How to Differentiate Between Sinusitis and Allergic Rhinitis

Sinusitis and allergic rhinitis are two common respiratory conditions that can cause similar symptoms, such as nasal congestion, headache, and sneezing. However, they have different causes, treatments, and complications. In this article, we will explain how to tell the difference between sinusitis and allergic rhinitis, and what to do if you have either or both of these conditions.

Sinusitis and Allergic Rhinitis

What is Sinusitis?

Sinusitis is an inflammation or infection of the sinuses, which are air-filled cavities in the skull that connect to the nose. The sinuses help to humidify and filter the air we breathe and also produce mucus to trap foreign particles and germs. When the sinuses become inflamed or infected, they can swell and block the drainage of mucus, causing pressure, pain, and difficulty breathing. Sinusitis can be acute (lasting less than four weeks) or chronic (lasting more than 12 weeks).

What Causes Sinusitis?

The most common cause of sinusitis is a viral infection, such as the common cold or the flu. Viruses can damage the lining of the sinuses and make them more susceptible to bacterial or fungal infections. Other causes of sinusitis include allergies, nasal polyps, deviated septum, dental infections, and environmental irritants, such as smoke, pollution, or chemicals.

What are the Symptoms of Sinusitis?

The main symptoms of sinusitis are:

  • Nasal congestion and difficulty breathing through the nose
  • Thick, yellow or green nasal discharge
  • Facial pain or pressure, especially around the eyes, cheeks, and forehead
  • Reduced sense of smell and taste
  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Bad breath
  • Fatigue

How is Sinusitis Diagnosed and Treated?

To diagnose sinusitis, check symptoms and medical history, and examine the nose and face. Physicians may also use a nasal endoscope, a thin flexible tube with a light and a camera, to look inside their sinuses. In some cases, they may order imaging tests, such as X-rays, CT scans, or MRI scans, to check for complications or underlying causes of sinusitis.

The treatment of sinusitis depends on the cause, severity, and duration of your condition. For mild to moderate cases of acute sinusitis, your doctor may recommend:

  • OTC pain relievers, such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen, to reduce inflammation and pain
  • OTC decongestants, such as pseudoephedrine or phenylephrine, to shrink the swollen nasal passages and improve drainage
  • OTC antihistamines, such as diphenhydramine or loratadine, to reduce allergic reactions and mucus production
  • OTC nasal sprays, such as saline or oxymetazoline, to moisten and clear the nasal passages
  • Home remedies, such as steam inhalation, warm compresses, or nasal irrigation, to soothe and cleanse the sinuses

For severe or chronic cases of sinusitis, or if you have complications or underlying conditions, the doctor may prescribe:

  • Antibiotics, such as amoxicillin or azithromycin, to treat bacterial infections
  • Steroids, such as prednisone or fluticasone, to reduce inflammation and swelling
  • Immunotherapy, such as allergy shots or sublingual tablets, to desensitize your immune system to allergens
  • Surgery, such as endoscopic sinus surgery or balloon sinuplasty, to remove obstructions or enlarge the openings of the sinuses

What is Allergic Rhinitis?

Allergic rhinitis, also known as hay fever, is an allergic reaction to airborne substances, such as pollen, dust, mould, or animal dander. When you inhale these allergens, your immune system produces antibodies that trigger the release of histamine and other chemicals, which cause inflammation and irritation of the nose and eyes. Allergic rhinitis can be seasonal (occurring only at certain times of the year) or perennial (occurring year-round).

What Causes Allergic Rhinitis?

The exact cause of allergic rhinitis is unknown, but it is likely influenced by genetic and environmental factors. Some people are more prone to developing allergies than others, due to their family history, immune system, or exposure to allergens. The most common allergens that cause allergic rhinitis are:

  • Pollen, from trees, grasses, weeds, or flowers
  • Dust mites, microscopic creatures that live in bedding, carpets, and furniture
  • Mold, a type of fungus that grows in damp places, such as bathrooms, basements, or outdoors
  • Animal dander, dead skin cells and saliva from pets, such as cats, dogs, or birds
  • Cockroaches, insects that can infest homes, especially in urban areas

What are the Symptoms of Allergic Rhinitis?

The main symptoms of allergic rhinitis are:

  • Sneezing
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Itchy nose, eyes, ears, or throat
  • Watery or red eyes
  • Dark circles under the eyes
  • Postnasal drip
  • Cough
  • Headache
  • Fatigue

How is Allergic Rhinitis Diagnosed and Treated?

To diagnose allergic rhinitis, Physicians will ask you about the symptoms and medical history, and examine the nose and eyes. They may also perform skin tests or blood tests to identify the specific allergens that trigger your reaction.

The treatment of allergic rhinitis aims to reduce your exposure to allergens and relieve your symptoms. Your doctor may recommend:

  • Avoiding or minimizing contact with the allergens that cause your symptoms, such as staying indoors when the pollen count is high, using air filters or humidifiers, washing your bedding and clothes regularly, or keeping your pets out of your bedroom
  • OTC or prescription antihistamines, such as cetirizine or fexofenadine, to block the effects of histamine and reduce inflammation and itching
  • OTC or prescription decongestants, such as pseudoephedrine or phenylephrine, to shrink the swollen nasal passages and improve breathing
  • OTC or prescription nasal sprays, such as saline, cromolyn, or azelastine, to moisten, soothe, or prevent the inflammation of the nasal passages
  • OTC or prescription eye drops, such as ketotifen or olopatadine, to reduce the redness, itching, and watering of the eyes
  • Immunotherapy, such as allergy shots or sublingual tablets, to desensitize your immune system to allergens and reduce the severity and frequency of your symptoms

How to Prevent Complications and Improve Your Quality of Life

Both sinusitis and allergic rhinitis can affect your quality of life and lead to complications if left untreated. Some of the possible complications include:

  • Chronic sinusitis, which can cause permanent damage to the sinuses and increase the risk of infections, polyps, or tumors
  • Nasal polyps, which are benign growths that can obstruct the nasal passages and impair your sense of smell and taste
  • Asthma, which is a chronic lung condition that causes wheezing, shortness of breath, and chest tightness
  • Otitis media, which is an infection of the middle ear that can cause pain, fever, and hearing loss
  • Sinus headaches, which are headaches that occur due to the pressure and inflammation of the sinuses
  • Sleep apnea, which is a disorder that causes pauses in breathing during sleep and can lead to snoring, daytime sleepiness, and heart problems

To prevent these complications and improve your quality of life, you should:

  • Seek medical attention if your symptoms are severe, persistent, or interfere with your daily activities
  • Follow your doctor’s advice and take your medications as prescribed
  • Maintain good hygiene and wash your hands frequently to avoid spreading or catching germs
  • Drink plenty of fluids and stay hydrated to thin the mucus and ease the congestion
  • Eat a balanced diet and avoid foods that may trigger or worsen your symptoms, such as spicy, dairy, or sugary foods
  • Exercise regularly and avoid smoking or exposure to secondhand smoke, which can irritate your respiratory system
  • Manage your stress and practice relaxation techniques, such as meditation, yoga, or deep breathing, which can help reduce inflammation and boost your immune system


Sinusitis and allergic rhinitis are two common respiratory conditions that can cause similar symptoms but have different causes, treatments, and complications. By knowing how to differentiate between them and seeking appropriate medical care, you can prevent further problems and improve your health and well-being.

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