"Many people confuse seasonal allergies with sinus infections," explained Otolaryngologist Wayland Wong, M.D. "Both allergy and sinus sufferers may experience a stuffy, painful nose, which is often accompanied by sneezing, coughing or cold-like symptoms. However there are some important differences that need to be addressed for prevention and appropriate treatment."
"Allergies are the body's reaction to allergens in the surrounding environment," Dr. Wong added. "These allergens may include dust, pollen, mold spores, pet dander and food. People may be allergic to one or more of these items, so determining the cause of an allergic reaction can be difficult.
"When people are exposed to an allergen to which they are sensitive, their bodies produce histamines, which are chemicals that cause the lining of the nose, sinuses and the eyes to become inflamed as the body attempts to fight off the allergen. When this happens, the person begins sneezing and wheezing, and his or her eyes may start watering and itching. These symptoms last as long as the person is exposed to the allergen.
"Allergic rhinitis is the body's immune system's reaction when it comes into contact with certain allergens, such as pollen or mold," Dr. Wong continued. "When people with allergies inhale these substances, an allergic antibody named IgE, treats them like dangerous invaders. This triggers the release of histamines and other chemicals, which cause the allergic responses of sneezing, dripping nose, congestion or itchiness.
"An allergy sufferer's symptoms can range from mild to severe and include nasal congestion and increased drainage, which can produce complications such as sinus headaches, sinus infections, sore throat and fatigue. Other symptoms can include a loss of sleep due to continued nasal congestion."
Is it Sinusitis or a Cold or Allergy?
SYMPTOM SINUSITIS ALLERGY COLD
Facial Pressure /Pain Yes Sometimes Sometimes
Duration of Illness Over 10-14 days Varies Under 10 days
Nasal Discharge Whitish Clear, Thick, whitish
or colored thin, watery or thin
Fever Sometimes No Sometimes
Headache Sometimes Sometimes Sometimes
Pain in Upper Teeth Sometimes No No
Bad Breath Sometimes No No
Coughing Sometimes Sometimes Yes
Nasal Congestion Yes Sometimes Yes
Sneezing No Sometimes Yes
"A sinus infection is frequently the result of the common cold, with symptoms that are very similar to allergic rhinitis," Dr. Wong advised. "During a sinus infection, the mucous membranes lining the nose become inflamed by a virus or bacteria. Eventually the mucous membranes in the frontal and maxillary sinuses, which are located in the forehead and cheekbones, also become inflamed, creating a greenish discharge.
"Pain in the forehead above the inner half of the eyebrows, or in the cheeks near the bridge of the nose, is more consistent with sinusitis than allergies. As the nose and sinus cavities become filled with this discharge, pressure builds and the person may feel pain behind the eyebrows or in the cheeks. His or her nose will become stuffy. Other symptoms include drainage down the back of the throat, sneezing, coughing, swelling in the face, tiredness and fever, which is another distinguishing sign of sinusitis."
There are two types of sinusitis: acute and chronic. Acute sinusitis is caused by a viral or bacterial pathogen entering the sinus and causing an immune response. Chronic sinusitis, which is sinusitis lasting more than twelve weeks, can be due to an infection or to a structural blockage of the sinus outlet by something in the nose, such as a polyp or a deviated septum.
Allergies can often be treated with a variety of over-the-counter medicines. "Antihistamines are used to relieve the symptoms of allergic rhinitis and other allergies," Dr. Wong said. "They work by blocking the action of histamine, which is produced by the body during an allergic reaction. Decongestants are used to treat nasal congestion and other symptoms associated with colds and allergies. They work by narrowing the blood vessels, leading to the clearing of nasal congestion. Prescription nasal sprays and other medications are also available."
Sinus infection symptoms may also be relieved with over-the-counter decongestants, or through other remedies such as inhaling steam (e.g., in a hot shower) or through the use of a neti-pot or a saline nasal spray to bring relief.
"Without treatment, the sinuses usually clear after about a week," Dr. Wong continued. "However, the main complication occurs when bacteria multiply within the blocked sinus, causing a sinus infection. This leads to fever and increased pain. Sometimes the overlying skin around the eyes or cheeks becomes red or swollen. This type of bacterial sinus infection needs antibiotics for effective treatment. "In cases of either chronic sinusitis or recurring episodes of sinusitis, surgery may be needed," Dr. Wong concluded. "An innovative approach for treating sinusitis is balloon sinuplasty technology, which uses minimally invasive sinus catheters to position a tiny balloon into the patient's blocked sinus passageway. The balloon is then inflated to gently restructure and open the sinus passageway, which facilitates normal sinus drainage."
Otolaryngologist Wayland Wong, M.D., performs balloon sinuplasty at The Surgery Center at Salem Community Hospital. Dr. Wong is affiliated with Salem Community Hospital's medical staff, and his office is located on the second floor of the Salem Medical Center across from Salem Community Hospital, at 2094 East State Street, Suite A, in Salem, 330-337-4900.