Updated 31 July 2017

Are you suffering from allergies or sinusitis?

Sometimes symptoms can be misleading, and you’re not quite sure if what you’ve got is allergic rhinitis or sinusitis. Here’s how to spot the difference.

You are quickly running out of tissues for both your runny nose and your watery eyes. You suspect it is your allergies acting up again, but how do you know it’s not sinusitis?

Distinguishing between symptoms that could be either sinusitis or an allergy is something with which even medical professionals can sometimes struggle. According to Health24’s Cyberdoc Dr Heidi van Deventer, “Allergic rhinitis and sinusitis are indeed difficult to tell apart, especially at the start.

"The symptoms are mostly the same, such as sneezing, a runny nose, itchy ears, and sometimes even feelings of vertigo due to an imbalance of fluid in the sinuses, nasal passages and ears.”

Clearing up the confusion

According to Health24, infection in the sinuses causes irritation and inflammation of the sinus linings. The inflammation can cause blockages, obstructing the drainage of mucus inside the sinus cavities.

Dr van Deventer explains the following:

  • Sinusitis can make one very ill and at its worst needs to be treated with strong antibiotics for up to 10 days.
  • It can cause severe headaches and pressure in the sinuses, as well as systemic illness with body aches and fever.
  • Sinusitis can also start as allergic rhinitis and then, if the mucus is not cleared sufficiently, it can become infected with bacteria and cause bacterial sinusitis, so sinusitis can be caused by a virus or bacteria.

Allergic rhinitis is caused by various environmental factors, such as pollen in the air or the hair of pets like cats or dogs. Allergic rhinitis will usually clear up with antihistamine and a nasal spray, and will improve when the irritant is removed from the environment.  

A few questions to ask when you are struggling to figure out if you have allergic rhinitis or sinusitis:

Q: Have you been exposed to any substance recently that could have caused the allergies, such as flowers, pet hair etc.?

A: If yes, it is quite likely that you have allergic rhinitis.

Q: How long have you had the symptoms?

A: If symptoms persist for more than a few days it could be a sinus infection.

Q: What does the discharge look like?

A: If it’s clear, thin and watery, it probably isn’t an infection, which would indicate that you are experiencing an allergic reaction.

Once you have a better idea of what caused your condition, you or a medical professional will be able to more effectively treat your sinusitis or allergies.


Ask the Expert

Sinusitis Expert

Dr Gary Kroukamp MBCHB, FCORL(SA) is an ENT Specialist, practising from rooms at Kingsbury Hospital in Claremont, Cape Town. He also has a teaching sessional appointment as an ENT Consultant at the Tygerberg Hospital. He is a member of the ENT Society of South Africa and the South African Cochlear Implantation Group. His interests in the ENT field include sinusitis and sinus surgery, nasal allergy and ENT conditions in children.

Still have a question?

Get free advice from our panel of experts

The information provided does not constitute a diagnosis of your condition. You should consult a medical practitioner or other appropriate health care professional for a physical exmanication, diagnosis and formal advice. Health24 and the expert accept no responsibility or liability for any damage or personal harm you may suffer resulting from making use of this content.

* You must accept our condition

Forum Rules