Medically known as sinusitis, a sinus infection occurs when your nasal cavities become swollen and inflamed.
Sinusitis is usually caused by a virus and often persists even after other upper respiratory symptoms are gone. In rare cases, fungus or bacteria may cause a sinus infection. Allergies, nasal polyps, a tooth infection, and a deviated septum can also trigger sinusitis.
Acute sinusitis only lasts for a short time. An acute infection is usually part of a cold or allergies. Chronic sinus infections last for more than eight weeks or continue to recur.
Many sinus infection symptoms are common to both acute and chronic forms. Seeing your doctor is the best way to learn if you have an infection, to find the cause, and to get treatment.
Pain is the most common symptom of sinusitis. You have several different sinuses above and below your eyes as well as behind your nose. Any of these can hurt when you have a sinus infection.
Inflammation and swelling cause your sinuses to ache with a dull pressure. You may feel pain in your forehead, on either side of your nose, in your upper jaws and teeth, or between your eyes. This may lead to a headache (see below).
When you have a sinus infection, you may need to blow your nose often because of a greenish-yellow discharge. This discharge comes from your infected sinuses and drains into your nasal passages.
The discharge may also bypass your nose and flow down your throat. You may feel a tickle or an itch down the back of your throat. This is called postnasal drip and it may cause you to cough at night when you’re lying down to sleep and in the morning after getting up. It may also cause your voice to sound hoarse.
Your inflamed sinuses may also restrict how well you can breathe through your nose. The infection causes swelling in your sinuses and nasal passages. Because of the nasal congestion, you probably won’t be able to smell or taste as well as normal. Your voice may sound “stuffy.”
The relentless pressure and swelling in your sinuses can give you symptoms of a headache. Sinus pain can also give you earaches, toothaches, and pain in your jaws and cheeks.
Sinus headaches are often at their worst in the morning because fluids have been collecting all night long. Your headache can get worse when the temperature of your environment changes suddenly.
As the discharge from your sinuses drains down the back of your throat, it can cause irritation, especially over a long period of time. This can lead to a persistent and annoying cough, which as mentioned above, can be worse when lying down to sleep or first thing in the morning after getting up from bed. It can make sleeping difficult. Sitting upright to sleep can help reduce the frequency and intensity of your coughing.
Postnasal drip can leave you with a raw and aching throat. Although it may start as an annoying tickle, it can get worse. If your infection lasts for a few weeks or more, the mucus can irritate and inflame your throat as it drips, resulting in a painful sore throat and hoarse voice.
Make an appointment with your doctor if you have a fever or a sinus infection that lasts for weeks and keeps coming back.
A fever is not a typical symptom of either chronic or acute sinusitis, but it is possible. You could have an underlying condition that is causing your chronic infections, in which case you may need special treatment.
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Using a nasal decongestant spray (such as phenylephrine or oxymetazoline) can help relieve sinus infection symptoms. But continuous use over 10 to 14 days can cause a rebound effect in nasal congestion. In other words, instead of making your congestion symptoms better, the prolonged use of these medications makes it worse.
Sometimes a steroid nasal spray (such as fluticasone or mometasone) can help with nasal congestion symptoms without the risk of rebound symptoms from prolonged use.
Over-the-counter medicines that contain antihistamines and decongestants can help with sinus infections, too. Popular medicines of this kind include:
Again, taking a nasal decongestant (like Sudafed) for continuous periods of 10 to 14 days can cause rebounds. Talk to your doctor before taking any of these medicines to make sure that you’re not allergic to any ingredients and to make sure that they’ll effectively treat your sinusitis.
Try clearing out your nasal passages by mixing 1 cup of warm water with 1/2 teaspoon of table salt and 1/2 teaspoon of baking soda and spraying it into your nose using a nasal sprayer or similar spraying tool. This saline and baking soda mixture can help clear your sinuses of discharge, relieve dryness, and remove allergens that might be causing your sinusitis.
You can also try herb mixtures meant to treat sinusitis. Over-the-counter home remedies are available. These contain herbs such as elderflower, cowslip, sorrel, verbena, and gentian root. Use caution if you try mixing these herbs yourself. Using too little or too much of each herb can have unintended side effects, such as allergic reactions or diarrhea.
Antibiotics like amoxicillin are only used to treat chronic sinusitis. Talk to your doctor before attempting to take antibiotics for chronic sinusitis. Side effects, such as a rash, diarrhea, or stomach issues, can result from taking antibiotics for sinusitis. Ask your doctor about antibiotics if your symptoms have persisted for a week and there’s been little to no benefit with the above treatment.
Avoiding things that irritate your nose and sinuses can help prevent sinusitis. Cigarette smoke, chemicals in cleaning supplies, or known allergens can all cause you to develop sinusitis. Try to avoid being around these or similar irritants to keep your sinuses from becoming disturbed, inflamed, or infected.
Wash your hands frequently, especially during allergy season, to keep your sinuses from becoming irritated or infected by bacteria on your hands.
Talk to your doctor to see if allergies are causing your sinusitis. If you’re allergic to something that causes persistent sinusitis, you may need to seek allergic immunotherapy shots or a similar treatment. Keeping your allergies under control can help prevent repeated episodes of sinusitis.
It’s common for children to have allergies and to be sensitive to infections in the nose and ears. Colds may happen frequently, and your child can develop allergies at a young age that may not be cause for concern.
Your child may have a sinus infection if they have the following symptoms:
- a cold that lasts for nearly two weeks
- swelling around eyes
- thick, colored drainage from the nose
- post-nasal drip (causes bad breath, coughing, nausea, or vomiting)
See your child’s doctor to determine the best course of treatment for your child. Nasal sprays, saline sprays, and antihistamine or decongestant medicines are all effective for acute sinusitis.
Do not give over-the-counter antihistamines or decongestants to your child if they’re under 2 years old.
Antibiotics are commonly used because of their effectiveness in fighting bacterial sinus infections in children. If your child doesn’t respond to treatment or develops chronic sinusitis, your doctor might recommend that they see an otolaryngologist, who specializes in ear, nose, and throat (ENT) issues. An ENT specialist can take a culture of nose drainage to better fight the cause of an infection. The ENT specialist can also examine the sinuses more closely and suggest surgery if tissues in the sinuses are causing blockages or chronic infections.
Acute sinusitis usually goes away within one to two weeks with proper treatment and medication. Chronic sinusitis is more severe and may require seeing a specialist or having long-term treatment to address the cause of the constant infections. Chronic sinusitis can last for three or more months. Good hygiene, keeping your sinuses moist and clear, and treating symptoms immediately can help keep you from getting sinusitis.
Many treatments and procedures exist for both acute and chronic cases. Even if you experience multiple acute episodes or chronic sinusitis, seeing a doctor or specialist can greatly improve your outlook after these infections.
You Asked, We Answered
- Could my symptoms just be allergies?- Anonymous
The symptoms of sinus infection and allergies can be similar. Both can cause symptoms such as runny nose, congestion, headaches, nighttime cough, and difficulty breathing. You are more likely to have a sinus infection if you have fever, colored nasal discharge, and facial or sinus pain.- Mark R. LaFlamme, MD