If you don’t have reason to be familiar with rhinitis vs. sinusitis, these two conditions can sound very similar. After all, both conditions occur within your sinuses and share many symptoms. But when you start to experience one condition or the other, knowing the difference can be helpful. So, are sinusitis and rhinitis the same condition? Not exactly.
A closer look at sinusitis vs. rhinitis reveals that these two sinus conditions have marked differences. Here’s everything you need to know about rhinitis vs. sinusitis — including different treatment types.
What is rhinitis?
Rhinitis, also called allergic rhinitis, is the term used to describe the condition that occurs when your body reacts to allergens. In other words, when someone says their allergies are bothering them, they could also say they are currently suffering from rhinitis.
Some individuals struggle with rhinitis only during a particular season of the year — a situation which most folks refer to as “seasonal allergies” or “hay fever.” Others experience long-term, chronic rhinitis when the allergens to which their bodies react are present year-round.
What is sinusitis?
Sinusitis, also referred to as a sinus infection, occurs when the lining of your sinuses becomes inflamed due to an infection caused by either a virus, bacteria, or (rarely) a fungus. You can also get a sinus infection if your sinuses are regularly blocked — by congestion, for example, or by a nasal obstruction, such as a polyp.
You can have acute sinusitis that lasts 2-4 weeks, chronic sinusitis that lasts more than 12 weeks, or frequent sinusitis infections that recur several times a year. Unlike rhinitis, sinusitis that is caused by a virus (but not by bacteria or fungus) is contagious.
Are sinusitis and rhinosinusitis the same?
Yes. In some academic and clinical circles, rhinosinusitis is viewed as the more accurate term for sinusitis because the term illustrates the relationship between the sinuses and nasal passageways more clearly. Keep in mind, though, that rhinosinusitis ≠ rhinitis.
Rhinitis vs. sinusitis symptoms and attributes
Where most people get tied up understanding the difference between rhinitis and sinusitis is when they think about the symptoms. To help clarify this issue, here is a side-by-side comparison of rhinitis vs. sinusitis symptoms and other important attributes.
Symptoms: Stuffy nose, runny nose, eyes that are red/itchy/watery, sneezing, wheezing, rash, fatigue
Symptoms: Stuffy nose, swollen and painful sinuses, post-nasal drip, chronic cough, fatigue, bad breath, low fever
Mucus: Typically clear and watery
Mucus: Thicker and yellow/green
Onset: Directly after exposure to allergen(s)
Onset: 1-2 weeks after exposure to contagious individual, or after 1-2 weeks of continuous congestion
Duration: Symptoms disappear after allergens are no longer present
Duration: 4-12 weeks or longer, depending on the severity of the infection
Can rhinitis turn into sinusitis?
Yes. This is another reason why people often get confused when discussing rhinitis vs. sinusitis — untreated and/or chronic rhinitis can create the ideal environment for a sinus infection to occur.
Specifically, if your allergies are particularly bad and you are frequently congested, the buildup of mucus in your sinuses can become a breeding ground for the kind of bacteria that can lead to a sinus infection.
How do you treat rhinitis vs. sinusitis?
An occasional bout with rhinitis can be treated with OTC medication (recommended by your doctor) or, in some cases, prescription medications. For sporadic and non-chronic sinusitis, your doctor may also recommend OTC medications or, in very severe cases, antibiotics.
If you have rhinitis or sinusitis that is treatment-resistant and/or chronic, however, then more aggressive treatment may be necessary. In these cases, you will want to discuss treatment options with a trusted sinus doctor (also called an ENT, or ear, nose, and throat doctor).