Allergies or Sinusitis? How
to Tell the Difference
By Dennis Thompson Jr.
(March 21, 2004 - HealthDayNews)
You've got a scratchy throat and a runny nose, and a truly horrible
Are you in the throes of seasonal allergies, which are already
bedeviling people in many parts of the country? Or are you struggling
with a bout of sinusitis, a condition in which the sinuses become
inflamed or infected?
The answer may lie in a handful of telltale clues, doctors say.
On the surface, allergies and sinusitis are very similar, even
though they are very different, says Dr. Alpen Patel, an assistant
professor of otolaryngology at George Washington University Medical
Center in Washington, D.C.
"In fact, it's very difficult for patients and health-care
providers to differentiate the two, even with diagnostic studies
and imagery," Patel says.
Both diseases affect millions of people.
Doctors estimate that about 37 million Americans are affected by
sinusitis every year, according to the National Institutes of Health.
And about 32 million people suffer from seasonal allergies.
Allergies are caused by the immune system's overreaction to a misidentified
threat, such as pollen. The body's cells defend themselves by releasing
histamine, a chemical that causes an "allergic cascade"
of familiar symptoms such as coughing, sneezing and a runny nose,
says Mike Tringale, a spokesman for the Asthma and Allergy Foundation
Sinusitis, on the other hand, can be triggered by a number of factors,
including a cold, allergies or a virus, leading to irritation and
inflammation of the sinuses. If left untreated, problems can last
from weeks to months, even years, requiring antibiotics and bed
rest, Patel says.
Both conditions share a number of symptoms, Patel says. They include:
|| nasal congestion or blockage
|| nasal drainage either out of the nose or
down the throat
|| headaches and "sinus pain."
Making it even more difficult to distinguish between the two, allergy
patients are more likely to have sinus infections than people who
don't suffer from allergies, Patel says. "They often can't
tell whether they have just allergies or an accompanying sinus condition,"
But there are critical differences than can help you figure out
just what you've got.
The color and consistency of the mucus from your nose is one hint,
Patel says. Allergy sufferers have thin mucus that's either clear
or white in color. People with sinusitis have thick, discolored
and foul-smelling mucus.
Because the histamines released during an allergic reaction can
affect other parts of the body, people with allergies also will
suffer symptoms outside of the sinuses. These could include watery,
itchy eyes, and itchy skin.
Sinusitis, on the other hand, can sometimes be accompanied by a
toothache or pain between the eyes, suggesting an infection is taking
place, rather than an allergic reaction, Patel says.
When it comes to treatments, people with allergies can often control
their symptoms with antihistamines, Tringale says. They also can
get an allergy test that will give them a better idea what is causing
the reaction, so they can avoid it.
With sinusitis, once a diagnosis has been made, some people can
get by with rest, plenty of fluids and over-the-counter medications
to treat their symptoms, Patel says. He recommends using a saltwater
nasal spray to clean out the nose, to help wash away any viruses,
and moisturize the inflamed sinus tissues. Pain relievers and decongestants
also are helpful.
But if symptoms persist, more aggressive treatments are needed.
A person diagnosed with acute sinusitis, for instance, might require
a prescription for an antibiotic to eliminate the infection, and
a decongestant to reduce congestion. Chronic sinusitis can be more
difficult to treat and may require stronger oral antibiotics or
intranasal nebulized treatments. If none of these approaches works,
or patients have underlying physiological problems such as a narrow
sinus passage, surgery may be necessary.
People with recurring and chronic sinusitis might also need a CT
scan to determine the extent of their problem, Patel says.
And while these tips may help you tell the difference between seasonal
allergies and sinusitis, experts recommend that you seek medical
help for a correct diagnosis and the right course of action.
"Because they are so close company, it really requires the
intervention of a doctor or allergist," Tringale says.
SOURCES: Alpen Patel, assistant professor, otolaryngology, George
Washington University Medical Center, Washington D.C.; Mike Tringale,
spokesman, Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, Washington,
(republished with permission of HealthDayNews)
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