Sinus infections, also known as sinusitis, are infections centered in the air-filled spaces around your nasal cavities called the sinuses. During the infection, your sinuses swell and become inflamed. Most cases of sinusitis are caused by viruses, but they can also be triggered by infectious bacteria, or sometimes even fungi. The infection can often linger, developing pesky symptoms even after the initial cause is gone.
According to the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology, more than 30 million people get sinus infections every year in the United States. In fact, sinusitis is one of the most common diagnoses made by primary care professionals. And even though they’re frustrating to deal with, most can be treated with a simple combination of over-the-counter and prescription medications.
Sinus infection symptoms
Sinus infections can cause various symptoms, many of which mimic the nasal inflammation (rhinitis) that develops with a cold or flu. Some of the most common symptoms of sinus infections include:
- Green nasal discharge
- Tenderness/pressure under or between the eyes, near the bridge of the nose, in the cheeks or forehead
- Stuffy nose
- Postnasal drip
- Weakness or fatigue
- Bad breath
- Ear pain
- Tooth pain
- Headaches, especially around the temples and forehead
- Trouble breathing through your nose
In adults, sinus infections usually last 7-10 days. This condition is called acute sinusitis. For about 25% of people, symptoms linger beyond 14 days. When infections drag on for months, it’s called chronic sinusitis.
Potential complications of sinusitis
Most sinus infections don’t cause complications, but occasionally they can lead to serious infections that spread to other parts of the body. The most common complication is an orbital infection around the eye socket. These infections can include cavernous sinus thrombosis, orbital and subperiosteal abscesses, inflammatory oedema, and orbital cellulitis.
Intracranial infections, those that happen inside of the skull, can develop. These conditions include meningitis, intracerebral and brain abscesses, and dural sinus thrombosis. Local infections can also occur on the face and head. Some people experience facial abscesses, cellulitis, osteomyelitis, or mucocele.
When should you talk to a healthcare professional?
Complications from sinus infections are rare, but if you think you’re at risk, talk to your doctor. Especially if you experience any of the following symptoms:
- Severe headache
- Stiff neck
- Mental confusion
- Swelling in the cheeks, forehead, or the roof of your mouth
- Impaired vision
- High fever
- Difficulty breathing, speaking, or swallowing
- Swollen, red, painful eyes
If you’re immunocompromised, talk to your doctor as soon as you notice any sinus infection symptoms. Even if you don’t develop complications, talking to your doctor early on can get you an accurate diagnosis and help you understand treatment options.
What causes sinus infections?
Most sinus infections result from viruses. People can also develop sinusitis after a viral infection, like the common cold. These viruses cause fluid to build up in the sinuses, which creates the perfect environment for germs and bacteria to thrive.
Who is most at risk for sinusitis?
Sinus infections can affect anyone regardless of age or background. But you might have a higher risk of developing one if you:
- Recently had a cold
- Have seasonal allergies
- Smoke cigarettes or other tobacco products
- Are exposed to secondhand smoke
- Have nasal polyps or a deviated septum
- Are immunocompromised due to a medical condition, cancer treatment, or use medications that suppress your immune system
- Misuse medications linked to chronic sinus infections, such as decongestant nasal sprays
Diagnosing sinus infections
During a doctor visit, your healthcare provider may ask questions about your symptoms to determine the cause. They might ask questions like:
- When did you first notice symptoms?
- Have you recently had the flu or a cold?
- Do you have allergies?
- Do you currently take any medications?
Your doctor may examine your nose and throat to check for physical symptoms of a sinus infection. In most cases, they can make an accurate diagnosis based on this discussion and examination.
In rare cases, they may need further testing to confirm the diagnosis. Depending on your history and symptoms, your doctor may recommend:
A CT scan lets your doctor examine your sinuses in greater detail and look for complications. It also allows your doctor to see if symptoms are related to a sinus abnormality.
This procedure involves using a long, thin tube called an endoscope to examine your sinuses. This scope has a camera and light attached to the end, which gives your doctor the ability to see inside your nasal cavity.
Sometimes allergies, rather than a viral or bacterial infection, cause sinusitis. If you’re interested in seeing if allergies are the culprit, you can order an at home allergy test kit today.
Sinus/nasal sample test
If your sinus infection doesn’t respond to treatment, your doctor may recommend a nasal or sinus sample. Using a nasal swab, they collect cells from inside the sinuses, which are then looked at to determine the cause of your symptoms.
Keep in mind CT scans, endoscopies, and allergy tests are normally only performed for people dealing with recurring or chronic sinusitis that hasn’t resolved over time.
Treating sinus infections
Most sinus infections clear up on their own without antibiotics. You can speed up the recovery process with a combination of over-the-counter medications and at-home lifestyle changes that encourage the drainage of excess mucus.
Drink plenty of water. Staying hydrated thins and loosens mucus buildup in your nose and sinuses, improving drainage. Plus, water flushes out impurities in your body, quickening your recovery.
Ease decongestion with over-the-counter medications
You can use nasal sprays that contain phenylephrine or oxymetazoline to treat your sinusitis symptoms but pay attention to the instructions. When used too often, these medications can cause irritation and dependence.
For some people, nasal decongestants with phenylephrine or pseudoephedrine can reduce symptoms. These medications do have cardiovascular side effects. If you have high blood pressure, heart problems, or feel jittery and have trouble sleeping after using decongestants, talk to your doctor. They may recommend alternatives.
Ease discomfort with over-the-counter pain relievers
Medications like acetaminophen (Tylenol) and ibuprofen (Advil) can relieve pain from sinus pressure. Aspirin is safe for adults but shouldn’t be given to children or teenagers, as it can potentially cause a dangerous illness called Reye’s Syndrome.
Clear your sinuses with saline spray
Saline nasal spray can rinse your sinuses without chemicals or medication. It’s available at most grocery stores and pharmacies, but you can also make a saline nasal spray at home. Boil 8 oz. of water, then let it cool until warm. Add ¼ teaspoon of non-iodized salt and stir until dissolved. If you’re experiencing a lot of congestion, increase the salt to ½ teaspoon. Pour the solution into a spray bottle and use it as needed. If your nose is sore and the solution stings, add up to a ½ teaspoon of baking soda. Discard the solution after two days.
Use an extra pillow while asleep
Using an extra pillow to elevate your head is an easy way to drain mucus from your sinuses. If you have pain on one side of your face, try sleeping on the unaffected side.
Open your sinuses with steam
Steam can work wonders to relieve sinus pressure. Try taking a long, warm shower. You can also drink hot fluids like tea or soup throughout the day.
Apply a warm compress
To help with sinus pain, apply a warm compress. You can make an at-home compress by wetting a towel with hot-to-the-touch water. Wring out the excess water and lay the cloth over your sinuses for 20 minutes or until the towel cools.
Avoid drinking alcohol
Alcohol can worsen sinus swelling, congestion, and other symptoms. Avoid drinking while you’re recovering from a sinus infection.
Only use antihistamines if necessary
Antihistamines are helpful for allergy symptoms, but they can also thicken mucus, making it harder for your sinuses and nasal passages to drain. If you can, lay off the antihistamines while you’re recovering. While antihistamines can be helpful, they only provide short term relief from your allergy symptoms. An alternative to antihistamines are allergy drops, a form of immunotherapy, which trains your immune system to beat your allergy triggers without pills. Learn more about getting started with Wyndly allergy drops now!
What about antibiotics?
Most sinus infections clear up without the need for antibiotics. But severe or lingering infections can necessitate antibiotics to fully heal.
A variety of bacteria can contribute to a sinus infection. Your healthcare provider chooses the most effective antibiotic for your situation. They may opt for a specific antibiotic based on your general health, symptoms, and other factors.
If you’re given an antibiotic, make sure to take it exactly as prescribed. Finish the entire course of medication, even if your symptoms go away before you complete the prescription. This practice helps prevent the infection from coming back.
The bacteria and viruses that lead to sinus infections are contagious. Even so, there are steps you can take to reduce the risk of developing a sinus infection.
First, get the flu and pneumococcal vaccines. These diseases can lead to viral infections, including sinusitis. The CDC has detailed information on these vaccines, as well as information about how and where you can get vaccinated.
Also, be sure to wash your hands frequently and thoroughly. Handwashing removes the bacteria and viruses that spread infections. Follow the CDC’s guidance for handwashing to protect yourself and your family from getting sick.
Avoid close contact with people who are sick. People with colds, the flu, and other respiratory infections can pass the condition on to others. If you’re sick, limit contact with other people as much as possible. When someone in your home is sick, use a humidifier. Keeping the air slightly humid can reduce the likelihood of spreading respiratory illnesses.
If you smoke, quitting reduces your risk of developing respiratory infections (and improves your general health). Regardless of whether you smoke, limit your exposure to secondhand smoke and similar irritants.
Talking to a healthcare professional about sinus infections
Talking to a healthcare professional allows you to learn more about your condition. Your doctor can treat symptoms, prevent complications, and improve your recovery process. If needed, your provider can prescribe you medication from your local pharmacy.
Keep in mind this article is for informational purposes only. It is not medical advice and does not substitute for individualized medical care. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.
Are you an allergy sufferer who gets sinus infections?
Allergy sufferers find themselves sick with sinus infections more frequently than the general population. At Wyndly, we help allergy sufferers like you find relief through personalized treatment plans that keep them happy and healthy. If you want a personalized treatment plan for your allergies and sinusitis: book a consult with a Wyndly specialist today.