Share on Pinterest

Your sinuses are air-filled pockets that are located behind your face. When fluid builds up in your sinuses, germs like viruses and bacteria can multiply and lead to a sinus infection.

COVID-19 is a viral illness that’s caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Levels of the virus can be high in the nasal and sinus areas. Some COVID-19 symptoms also overlap with symptoms of sinus infections.

Symptoms like nasal congestion, sore throat, or fever may cause you to wonder if you have a sinus infection or COVID-19. Read on to find out how to tell the difference.

Sinus infections and COVID-19 can have many symptoms in common, including:

Some symptoms of a sinus infection that are different from those of COVID-19 include:

Sinus pain or pressure and postnasal drip are good indicators of a sinus infection. These symptoms typically occur along with other common sinus infection symptoms, such as a runny or stuffy nose.

Unique symptoms of COVID-19 that are rarely present during a sinus infection include:

A reduced sense of smell can happen over 60 percent of the time during a sinus infection or a cold. In COVID-19, loss of smell and taste is almost complete and can also happen even without a runny or stuffy nose.

Research has found that loss of smell and taste due to COVID-19 lasts about 9 days on average. Most people regain their sense of smell and taste within 28 days.

Here are some other ways you can tell sinus infections apart from COVID-19 by:

  • when symptoms first appear
  • how long symptoms last
  • how severe symptoms are

When do symptoms first appear?

The symptoms of a sinus infection often come on suddenly. COVID-19 symptoms can develop more gradually 2 to 14 days after exposure to SARS-CoV-2.

A sinus infection can often happen after you’ve had a common viral illness, such as a cold or the flu. If your symptoms develop after you’ve already been sick, you may have a sinus infection.

Viruses that cause a cold or flu tend to circulate in the fall and winter months. COVID-19 can occur any time of the year. While a sinus infection could develop following COVID-19, this hasn’t yet been reported by research.

A sinus infection can also occur after exposure to allergens or irritants, such as pollen, pet dander, and cigarette smoke. If you have allergies or were recently around an irritant, you may be at risk for a sinus infection.

How long do symptoms last?

Typically, a sinus infection clears up within 2 to 3 weeks. COVID-19 lasts for about a week or two depending on its severity and your overall health.

A 2020 study surveyed 270 outpatients with COVID-19. Among them, 175 people (65 percent) reported returning to their usual level of health about 7 days after a positive COVID-19 test.

Some symptoms like cough and loss of smell or taste may linger temporarily after COVID-19. Some people may experience long-haul COVID-19, a group of symptoms that persist in the weeks and months following an infection.

How severe are the symptoms?

Most sinus infections go away on their own without severe symptoms or complications. If a sinus infection is caused by bacteria, you may need antibiotics.

Many cases of COVID-19 may be mild or moderate. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 20 percent of people with COVID-19 have a severe or critical illness. Older adults and those with certain health conditions are at a higher risk of serious illness.

Here’s what to do next whether you think that you have a sinus infection or COVID-19.

Sinus infection

A sinus infection will usually go away on its own and can be treated at home. We’ll discuss some home care tips for a sinus infection in more detail below.

In rare cases, a sinus infection can spread beyond the sinus cavities and cause lasting symptoms. See a doctor if you’re experiencing severe head pain or nasal symptoms like a runny or stuffy nose for several weeks or more.


If you notice symptoms of COVID-19, get a COVID-19 test right away. This is the only way to be sure that your symptoms are due to COVID-19 and not another illness.

Get in touch with a doctor or your state’s health department to find testing sites near you. Turnaround time on a COVID-19 test can vary by testing site, so be sure to ask when you can expect to receive your results.

Plan to stay home until you receive your test result. This can help prevent the spread of SARS-CoV-2 to others.

Even if you know you have a sinus infection or COVID-19, speak with a doctor if your symptoms don’t improve or begin to get worse.

Seek medical attention immediately if you experience severe symptoms of COVID-19, such as:

If you’re concerned you may have COVID-19, let medical staff know prior to or upon arrival at a medical facility.

The treatments of sinus infections and COVID-19 also have some similarities and differences.

Sinus infection

Many sinus infections are caused by viruses, so antibiotics aren’t typically needed. In most cases, a sinus infection gets better with at-home care, such as:

  • getting rest
  • drinking plenty of fluids to help loosen mucus
  • applying a warm compress to your nose or forehead to help ease pressure
  • breathing in steamy air, such as by standing in the shower
  • using a saline nasal wash
  • taking over-the-counter (OTC) medications to relieve fever, discomfort, and nasal congestion


Mild to moderate COVID-19 symptoms can typically be treated at home using many of the same measures that are used for sinus infections. These include getting rest, drinking enough fluids, and using OTC medications.

More serious cases of COVID-19 need to be treated in a hospital. Some potential treatments include:

Now let’s take a look at what to do whether you receive a diagnosis of either a sinus infection or COVID-19.

Sinus infection

If you have a sinus infection, use the at-home care methods discussed above. It may take some time for your symptoms to improve, but they should go away within a few weeks.

Contact a doctor if your symptoms don’t improve or get worse 10 days. You may need antibiotics to treat your sinus infection.


Do the following if you have a positive COVID-19 test result:

  • Stay home. Unless you’re receiving medical care, it’s important to stay home during your recovery to prevent the spread of the virus to others in your community.
  • Stay separate. If you live with other people, separate yourself from them. Use a separate bedroom and bathroom if possible. Wear a mask if you need to be around others in your household.
  • Track your symptoms. COVID-19 can become serious, so make sure to keep track of your symptoms as you recover.
  • Care for yourself. Use at-home care measures to ease symptoms and aid in your recovery.
  • Keep clean. Wash your hands frequently, cover coughs and sneezes, and clean high-touch surfaces.
  • Contact others. If you were around others prior to testing positive for COVID-19, let them know so that they can seek testing.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says most people don’t need another test to end their isolation period for COVID-19. You can typically be around others again if all of the following are true:

  • It’s been at least 10 days since your symptoms appeared.
  • You’ve gone at least 24 hours without a fever without using fever-reducing medications like acetaminophen (Tylenol) and ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin).
  • Your overall symptoms are improving.

Long-haul COVID-19

Long-haul COVID-19 can last for weeks or months. If you think that you have this, see a doctor to learn about your options for managing symptoms.

Some examples of long-haul COVID-19 symptoms are:

Sinus infections are relatively common and not serious. Most sinus infections go away within days and don’t leave any lasting effects.

COVID-19 is much more serious and can result in long-term symptoms or complications. It’s also highly contagious, so it’s important to isolate yourself until you’re better and get a vaccine.

It’s not clear how long immunity lasts after a COVID-19 infection, so it’s still important to get a COVID-19 vaccine after you recover. If you were treated with monoclonal antibodies or convalescent plasma, you’ll need to wait 90 days before getting the vaccine.