What Is a Sinus Infection?
You're not alone if you've experienced a runny nose with a headache or other cold symptoms and wondered if you have a sinus infection. A sinus infection occurs when your sinus passages fill with excess mucus or fluid, creating the perfect environment for germs to grow.
Your sinuses are the air-filled pockets attached to your nasal cavities. When they fill with excess mucus, known as sinusitis, you will likely experience common cold symptoms and sinus pressure. You may suffer from intense headaches, as well.
How Do You Get a Sinus Infection?
These infections occur when fluid fills your sinus cavities and becomes painful or even infected. Otherwise known as sinusitis, a sinus infection results in many symptoms familiar to the common cold—including a stuffy nose and coughing—which can cause you to wonder what is making you feel so terrible.
While most sinus infections are either caused by a virus or bacterial infection, there are other sources of chronic sinusitis. Let's dig deeper into some of the root causes.
If a viral infection causes your sinus infection, you likely came into contact with a virus through direct contact, just as you would for a common cold. Viral sinus infections are the most common form of sinusitis, producing familiar symptoms such as a stuffy nose, sore throat, facial pain, and acute headaches.
Viral infections tend to last for a shorter period than bacterial sinus infections. The symptoms of a viral sinus infection usually last for about a week.
A bacterial sinus infection is caused by bacterial growth in the lining of the cavities in your face and nose. The underlying cause is usually sinusitis, caused by a virus. While the initial symptoms will be similar to a viral infection, bacterial sinusitis will last longer, often ten days or more. Bacterial sinusitis will also produce symptoms of acute sinus infections, including fever, facial pain, cough, and pain in the upper jaw or upper teeth.
While viral and bacterial infections are the most common source of sinus infections, others have their root cause in allergies, nasal polyps, or even deviated septum. Whether you are allergic to dust, ragweed, pet dander, or pollen, allergies can cause chronic congestion and sinus pressure, leaving you with ongoing symptoms and a higher risk for a bacterial infection.
When looking for the difference between allergic and non-allergic sinusitis, a key difference lies in the symptoms often associated with seasonal allergies. Allergic sinusitis is more likely to include itchy eyes, nose, and throat.
Can A Sinus Infection Be Contagious?
If you have a sinus infection, you may worry that you might pass your illness on to others. A sinus infection can be contagious, but it will depend on what type of sinus infection you’re dealing with. Learn the difference between bacterial and viral sinus infections:
Are Bacterial Sinus Infections Contagious?
While many bacterial infections are considered contagious, bacterial sinus infections are not. While the underlying cause—often viruses such as the ones that cause the flu or a cold—are considered contagious, bacterial sinusitis itself can not be passed from one person to another.
Are Viral Sinus Infections Contagious?
If you have a viral sinus infection, the underlying virus is considered contagious, even if sinusitis itself is not passed from one person to another. If you have the most common symptoms of a cold and worry your infection is contagious, take steps to help protect others.
Symptoms and Treatments
The primary signs of a sinus infection are very similar to cold or allergy symptoms. Think stuffy nose, coughing, sore throat, heavy mucus, headaches, and tenderness in your sinuses. In more acute cases, when the infection may have turned bacterial, you may also experience fever and pain in your upper jaw or teeth.
Many over-the-counter (OTC) medications can be used for general symptom relief. Decongestants or nasal sprays can help remove mucus, reducing sinus pressure. Headaches, sore throat, and facial pain can be reduced with OTC pain relievers. Try a warm compress applied to your sinus areas for temporary relief from sinus pressure pain.
While many sinus infections are considered viral and will pass on their own, an infection that turns bacterial will likely need a round of antibiotics to resolve fully.
If your symptoms last three weeks or more, your condition is considered chronic. In this case, there is likely an underlying reason for your congestion and discomfort. Perhaps you have a deviated septum or nasal polyps, which can impact mucus drainage and cause congestion. Alternatively, allergies could be the source of your chronic condition.
No matter the source of your discomfort, treat yourself as well as you can while you get to the bottom of things. Try to avoid irritants such as cigarette smoke, secondhand smoke, and polluted air. At the same time, look for the home remedies and medications that provide the most relief.
When to See a Doctor
When is it time to see a doctor for your suspected sinus infection? If your sinus symptoms are new and relatively minor, chances are good that your infection is viral. In this case, it will soon pass. In the meantime, you can treat your symptoms with at-home remedies or OTC treatments designed to help clear your nasal passages.
If your sinus infection lasts more than a week or you suspect it has transitioned to a bacterial infection, it may be time to seek medical care. Once bacterial, sinus infections are more acute and considered more serious. In this case, you may have a fever, acute facial pain, or even blood in the discharge from your nasal passages.
If your doctor decides your infection is bacterial rather than viral sinusitis, they may prescribe antibiotics to help get you back to health. While some doctors are hesitant to over-prescribe antibiotics, most infections caused by bacteria will respond to this treatment.
If your sinus infection symptoms do not seem bacterial but last longer than a week or two, they may be considered chronic. In this case, it is important to get to the bottom of things. Many times, a chronic stuffy nose and cough are caused by allergies. If you think seasonal or other allergies could be the underlying cause of your congestion and discomfort, be sure to seek the guidance of a qualified allergy doctor.
An allergy doctor can help you identify the root cause of your allergies through allergy testing and create a personalized treatment plan to get you lasting relief. Through sublingual immunotherapy treatment (SLIT), your immune system is retrained to stop reacting to your allergy triggers. Over time, through gradual exposure, your immune system builds tolerance. SLIT consists of allergy drops or allergy tablets, both of which can be taken safely at home.
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Frequently Asked Questions
How Long Are Sinus Infection Contagious?
If caused by a virus, you are likely contagious for several days before a sinus infection appears. Generally, you should consider yourself contagious for a week or more following your first symptom. Many of these infections are viral, so you can easily spread the underlying virus without proper precautions.
If you know you will be around someone with compromised health or known risk factors, take standard precautions to keep them safe. Wash your hands with soap and water, keep your distance and consider wearing a mask if you must be in close contact.
Are Sinus Infections Contagious Through Kissing?
Just as any virus can be transmitted through kissing, so too can a viral sinus infection pass from one person to another through saliva. Keep in mind while the virus may settle in one person's nasal passages, it may appear differently for someone else.
In other words, kissing may pass a virus, but it may show up differently. While you won't always know if you are kissing a sick person—they may not even feel sick themselves—it is important to know that you can easily catch a virus this way.
Is a Sinus Infection Contagious While on Antibiotics?
While antibiotics are prescribed for infections caused by bacteria, they do not act as a protective measure against a virus. If you've been mistakenly diagnosed with a bacterial infection when your only illness is viral, you will be contagious for a week or until you feel better.
Sinus infection caused by bacteria must be treated by medication to resolve fully, but the medication does not address the underlying virus. Many doctors will take the time to conduct patient education, explaining these differences while looking out for the overall well-being of their patients.
Are Sinus Infections Contagious After Antibiotics?
The short answer to this question is: not likely. By the time you have been diagnosed with a bacterial sinus infection and taken a course of antibiotics, you will have fought off any underlying virus that caused the infection in the first place.
While you may still be using nasal sprays or other at-home treatments to deal with minor discomforts related to your illness, sinusitis caused by bacteria is not in itself contagious. Even if it was originally caused by a virus, the infection itself would be gone. Not only does the medication dispense with bacteria within the first few days of treatment, but in this case, timing is on your side.
Are Sinus Infections Caused By Allergies Contagious?
No. If you have allergy-induced sinusitis your condition cannot be passed to someone else. The allergens that trigger an allergic reaction in your body will not directly impact anyone else. If you are regularly exposed to known allergens, you may experience ongoing discomfort and aggravation.
Allergic sinusitis that lasts for weeks at a time is thought to be chronic. While it can be difficult to reduce your exposure to allergens, it might be worth exploring the benefits of immunotherapy, which offers long-term relief. Sublingual immunotherapy allows patients to experience a doctor-prescribed, personalized treatment plan that can be administered at home.
Are Ear and Sinus Infections Contagious?
When it comes to the question of whether or not they are contagious, sinus and ear infections fall into the same general category. Neither are contagious on their own, although their source viruses can quickly be passed from one person to another.
For example, a standard cold—which can spread from sneezing, coughing, or touching infected surfaces—can be the root cause of a sinus infection or an ear infection. As a cold or flu works through your body, it can settle in your nose, sinuses, chest, or ears. While these ailments cannot be spread from one person to another, it is vital to keep track of how you feel. If an infection in your ears or your sinuses turns bacterial, it may need your doctor's attention.