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Runny Nose: Allergies, Cold, or Sinus Infection?

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When your nose starts to run, the first step in finding the right treatment is figuring out the cause. Three common causes of a runny nose are allergies, a cold, and a sinus infection.

If you are allergic to something (your allergen) such as tree pollen, your body mistakes that allergen for something harmful to your body. When you come in contact with the allergen, your immune system jumps into action by releasing antibodies and other chemicals to fight off the invader. One of these chemicals known as histamine causes the symptoms we associate with an allergic reaction including itchy or watery eyes and a runny nose.

Allergy symptoms show up after you have been exposed to your allergen. If you get away from the allergen, the symptoms should go away and your nose should stop running. Some allergens, like cat hair, tend to be localized. So if you visit someone with a cat you can expect a runny nose that will clear up when you get out of the area. But if you are allergic to something like tree pollen, you might notice your symptoms improving when you go indoors where the air is filtered.

Allergy treatments include antihistamines to reduce the allergic reaction. Many antihistamine or antihistamine/decongestants are available over-the-counter (OTC).

Seasonal allergies tend to show up around the same time each year, such as when a particular plant is pollinating. So if you suspect you have allergies, thinking about whether you always seem to get sick around the same time of year may help you figure out what your allergen is. An allergist can also do tests to determine what you are allergic to and can suggest treatments that may work better than OTC medications.

The common cold is caused by a virus and can be spread to other people. Symptoms of a cold include coughing, sneezing, sore throat, and a runny or stuffy nose. Common treatments include rest, pain relievers, and OTC cold medications. You can reduce the chances you will catch or share the cold virus by washing your hands often and always covering your nose and mouth when you sneeze or cough.

Sinus infection
A sinus infection is caused by something foreign growing in your sinuses. A sinus is a hollow cavity in the bones in your head. There are four pairs of sinuses in the human skull. Small passages connect all the sinus cavities to the airway behind the nose. When you have a sinus infection, something in your sinuses grows and produces excess mucus that can plug the opening from the sinus and prevent the fluids in the sinus from draining.

Sinus infections can be caused by a virus, bacteria, or fungus. Sinus infections are not believed to be contagious. Symptoms of a sinus infection include: headache, especially a headache centered over one or more sinus cavities, facial tenderness, pain or pressure in the sinuses, fever, and discolored drainage from the nose. People who have sinusitis, which is inflammation in the mucus membrane lining the sinuses, may be more prone to sinus infections.

Treatments for sinus infections vary depending on the cause of the infection. Viral infections generally must run their course. OTC decongestants and medications to reduce mucus can help. Irrigating the sinuses with a Neti-pot or other saline rinse can also help reduce symptoms. Bacterial sinus infections are often treated with an antibiotic as well as nasal irrigation. Fungal infections in the sinuses are rare, but require medical attention.

In general, allergy symptoms will go away when you get away from the allergen. A cold tends to last about a week before symptoms ease and disappear. A sinus infection, especially a bacterial infection, can last much longer and will get worse instead of better over time. If your runny nose does not go away in a short time, talk to your healthcare provider to find out if you need seasonal allergy treatment or more aggressive treatment for a sinus infection.


Mayo Clinic. Cold or allergy: Which is it?. James M. Steckelberg, MD. Web. September 19, 2011.

MedicineNet.com. Sinus Infection. Web. September 19, 2011.

About.com: Thyroid Disease. Is It Allergies or Sinusitis?. Mary Shomon. Web. September 19, 2011.

About.com: Allergies. Sinus Infection. Daniel More, MD. Web. September 19, 2011.

Reviewed September 20, 2011
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith

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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.


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