As we head into hay fever season, it can be difficult to pinpoint the cause of your congestion– are your sniffles due to seasonal allergies or a sinus infection? The two condition share similar symptoms, but are not the same thing.
Allergies occur when our body’s immune system mistakes a harmless, everyday substance for a dangerous one. The body releases histamines to fight the perceived intruder (the allergen), which triggers symptoms such as coughing, sneezing, itchy eyes, runny nose and scratchy throat.
Pollen and mold are major allergens for millions of people, and their symptoms often worsen during springtime, as plant species begin releasing pollen particles into the air and outdoor molds release their spores. These seasonal allergies are sometimes called “hay fever” or seasonal allergic rhinitis.
Sinus Infection (Rhinosinusitis)
In contrast, a sinus infection occurs when your nasal cavities become infected, swollen and inflamed, usually due to a virus. Infected sinuses cause pain and pressure in the face, severe congestion, and nasal discharge that is cloudy, green, or yellow. Other possible symptoms include sore throat (due to post-nasal drip), fever, tooth pain, headache, and bad breath.
Evaluation and Treatment
While allergies and sinus infections are separate conditions, their treatments do share some overlap—if you are experiencing congestion with either, a decongestant medication can help to break up mucus in your nasal cavities.
Allergies can be treated with antihistamines, such as Benadryl, Zyrtec, and Claritin. These medications block the body’s histamine-producing response and help to reduce symptoms. Allergies cannot be fully prevented, but you can minimize your exposure to known allergens.
From a naturopathic medicine standpoint, allergies can be multifactorial. Treating the cause by removing the underlying trigger can make a difference in allergic symptoms. This method is preventive, and may take time to take effect. Some common allergic triggers include consumption of dairy and as well as environmental exposure to mold, pet dander, dust, pollen, fragrances, and air pollutants. Switching toiletries, soaps and home cleaning products for more natural products may be helpful. Non-pharmaceutical interventions for allergies exist such as stinging nettles, which is a mast cell stabilizer. Mast cells release histamine which can trigger your immune system to respond with allergic-type symptoms. Stinging nettle leaf in the form of a tea may be helpful in reducing allergic symptoms due to its quercetin content which stabilizes mast cells.
For viral sinus infections, your best bet is to rest and drink plenty of fluids. Antibiotics are not effective in treating viruses. Nasal irrigation can also help to clear your sinuses, relieve dryness, and flush allergens. With proper care, most sinus infections go away on their own within 1-2 weeks.