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Cold or sinus infection blog Children's Wisconsin

Is it a cold or sinus infection?

When a child has a runny nose, fever and cough, and is feeling run down, it can be hard to tell if it’s a common cold or something more serious like a sinus infection. Colds and sinus infections share many symptoms. But before you take time out of your busy schedule to take your child into the pediatrician’s office for antibiotics, here are a few things to consider.

Spotting the difference

Cold symptoms:

  • Congestion with a runny nose

  • Sneezing

  • Cough

  • Low fever

  • Mild body ache

Sinus infection symptoms:

  • Yellow-green mucus

  • Persistent fever

  • Cough that does not resolve

  • Facial, ear and/or tooth pain

  • Headache

  • Swelling around the eyes

The main difference between a cold and sinus infection is the duration of symptoms. Colds typically last 5-10 days, while a sinus infection can last much longer.


While colds are common, less than one in 15 become a bacterial sinus infection. Both colds and sinus infections can take time to clear up. Because a cold is a viral infection, you need to let it run its course ––prescription medicine will not shorten the length or severity.


A fever is the body’s fight against the cold virus and can last a day or two. The mucus that comes out of your child’s nose may start clear and become cloudy. Cold symptoms should improve in about 10 days.

Sinus infections

Unlike colds, sinus infections are bacterial and can remain in the body for three weeks or more.

If your child is diagnosed with a sinus infection, your pediatrician may prescribe an antibiotic to help your child recover faster.

Non-prescription relief

It’s never easy to see your child sick with a cold or sinus infection. You can help your children be less uncomfortable by following a few tips.

  • Rest: Laying low and taking a break from sports or other activities will help your child fight illness.

  • Pain relievers: Acetaminophen or ibuprofen can help bring down a fever and relieve headaches or other body aches. Use aspirin with caution as it can increase the risk of a rare, but serious, condition called Reye syndrome.

  • Fluids: Water, clear broth and other fluids can help flush mucus, relieving congestion and preventing dehydration. Go easy on sugary drinks like juice, soda and sports drinks.

  • Nasal saline: Using nasal spray with a saline solution or a neti pot with a sterile water and saline solution can naturally help remove mucus, relieving congestion. For infants, using a nasal aspirator, such a nose frida, can help with congestion.

  • Humidifier: A cold mist humidifier at night helps prevent sinuses from drying out. Do not use hot mist humidifier as it can be a burn risk. Be sure to clean out humidifiers often to prevent bacteria and mold growth.

When to see the pediatrician

Although colds will resolve themselves and many sinus infections will too, it is important to see your pediatrician if your child has a

  • Persistent cough

  • Fever over 103 degrees Fahrenheit

  • Rash

  • Shortness of breath or wheezing

  • Vomiting


Remember, germs spread easily. Stay away from people who are sick, if possible. To prevent colds and sinus infections, encourage kids to wash their hands thoroughly and frequently with soap, and avoid touching the eyes, nose and mouth.

Whenever you have a question regarding your child’s well-being, it’s always best answered by your pediatrician.