Is It a Sinus Infection or an Ear Infection?

Sometimes, people who experience a feeling of fullness in the ear, muffled hearing and fever attribute these symptoms to a sinus infection. That could be a mistake because the symptoms all together line up more with an ear infection. Each type of infection has different treatments, so having the proper diagnosis is important.

Symptoms of a Sinus Infection

The signs of a sinus infection can include:

  • Fever
  • Sinus pressure behind eyes and cheeks
  • Thick yellow or green mucus dripping from your nose or into the back of your throat
  • Lesser sense of smell
  • Bad breath
  • Runny, stuffy nose for more than a week
  • Cough
  • Fatigue
  • Headache that gets worse
  • Facial pain
  • Pain in the upper teeth
  • Upset stomach, nausea, pain behind the eyes and headaches (these can be more common in teens)

Sinus infections occur when the nasal passages get congested. These infections can be tricky to treat and are sometimes chronic. Hearing loss is NOT a symptom of a sinus infection, although your ear may feel full. Sinus infections, as opposed to ear infections, are less frequent in children.

Symptoms of an Ear Infection

Children get ear infections more often than adults do, and muffled hearing (hearing loss) is one symptom that both groups may share. In adults, the symptoms can also include:

  • Earache
  • Feeling of fullness in ear
  • Ear drainage
  • Nausea
  • Sharp stabbing pain in ear canal
  • Sore throat, stuffy nose or fever

Symptoms among children include muffled hearing, pulling at the ear, ear drainage, restlessness, fever, irritability and crying when lying down. Children can also experience sore throat, stuffy nose or fever.

Children vs. Adults

Children 6 months to 2 years old are at higher risk of ear infections. They have developing immune systems, and their Eustachian tubes are smaller and flatter. It’s more difficult for fluid to drain out of their ears even when everything is perfectly normal. Introduce something such as a cold that swells or blocks the Eustachian tubes, and the risk of an ear infection climbs.

Young children are not as likely to get sinus infections. The sinuses in the forehead do not start to develop until children are 9 to 12 years old. Sinuses fully form only when children are in their late teens. In other words, if your toddler is upset, crying and in pain, an ear infection could be at play while a sinus infection is unlikely.

If you’re experiencing nasal drip with thick yellow-green mucus, you likely have a sinus infection, not an ear infection. Ditto with a cough, bad breath and reduced ability to smell. However, signs such as sharp stabbing pains in your ear canal, earaches and muffled hearing point to ear infections. The overlap between the two infections occurs mostly with some type of pain, stuffy nose and fever.

A sinus infection is a type of ear congestion. General ear congestion can be caused by a cold, allergies, flu, tobacco smoke and even travel and changes in altitude. Illnesses such as colds, sinus infections and allergies can lead to ear infections. Ear infection risk factors include these:

  • Poor air quality (for example, tobacco smoke or pollution)
  • Group daycare or preschool
  • Bottle feeding for infants
  • Age
  • Fall and winter seasonal allergies
  • Cleft palate
  • Alaska Native lineage

Treatment of Ear and Sinus Infections

Ear tests nearby are an excellent way to confirm what type of infection you have. Your doctor asks about symptoms and may use an otoscope or a tympanometer to check for an ear infection. If that is what you have, the doctor tries to determine if the cause is viral or bacterial. He or she may suggest waiting for the ear infection to go away on its own. If it is serious, your doctor may need to prick your eardrum to let the infection seep out.

Otherwise, if the cause is bacterial, you may get an antibiotic. A pain reliever such as Tylenol, Advil or Motrin should help with the pain and lower your fever. (Children should not take aspirin because of the potential for liver or brain swelling.) If the doctor prescribes antibiotics, take all of the doses to prevent the infection from returning. Unfortunately, many people start feeling better and stop taking their antibiotics, only for the infection to come back.

Other remedies for an ear infection include gargling with salt water, using heated compresses and keeping your head erect. Avoid smokers and the areas they frequent. Surgery may be necessary if ear infections become chronic.

Now, if you have a sinus infection, your doctor may recommend waiting for it to go away on its own. Alternatively, the doctor might start you on a basic round of antibiotics. You can also perform sinus irrigation and take over-the-counter mucus thinners. Steroids and decongestants can help as well. Your doctor will tell you what to do. Some people get chronic sinus infections, and antibiotics do not help. Surgery may be necessary in these cases. The procedure enlarges the sinus openings for easier draining.

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