Are sinus infections contagious?

If your sinus infection is caused by a virus, it’s possible to spread that virus to another person. This could cause them to develop a cold, which could then develop into a sinus infection.

Sinus infections aren’t always caused by a virus. Bacteria and fungi can sometimes also cause infections. If bacteria cause a sinus infection, then it’s not contagious.

Did you know?

Other names for a sinus infection are rhinosinusitis or sinusitis.

Transmission

When fluid or mucus is trapped in the sinuses, germs can begin to grow. That can lead to a sinus infection. Common causes of sinus infections include:

Viruses cause most sinus infections. If a virus causes your sinus infection, then it can be contagious. Spreading the virus to another person doesn’t guarantee that person will get a sinus infection. In most cases, they may only develop a cold. Their cold may turn into a sinus infection, but this doesn’t always happen.

You can spread the virus responsible for your sinus infection to another person through the air when you sneeze or cough. Covering your nose and mouth when you cough or sneeze can help reduce the risk of spreading infection.

You can also spread the virus by touching another person or object, like a doorknob, if you’ve sneezed or coughed directly into your hands. That’s why it’s recommended to cough or sneeze into the crook of your elbow, and to wash your hands regularly when you’re sick.

Bacteria can also cause sinus infections, but these infections aren’t contagious. You can’t spread them to other people. Bacterial sinus infections are less common. Bacteria cause less than 2 percent of sinus infections.

Symptoms

The symptoms of sinus infection include:

  • pain or pressure in the sinuses, on the forehead, between the eyes, on the sides of the nose, or at the upper jaw
  • headache
  • runny or stuffy nose
  • inability to smell
  • thick, yellow, green, or cloudy nasal discharge
  • postnasal drip, which is when mucus or fluid from the nose goes down the throat
  • sore or irritated throat
  • cough
  • bad breath
  • fever
  • fatigue

Read more: What does the color of your mucus mean? »

The length of your symptoms can vary. Acute sinusitis is temporary and usually develops from a cold. Symptoms typically last 7–10 days. A bacterial infection can make acute sinusitis last longer.

Chronic sinusitis is long-term and can reoccur. Symptoms of chronic sinusitis will last for 12 weeks or longer.

Treatment

There are several treatment options for sinus infections. Most treatment plans start with:

  • saline nasal irrigation and saline nasal sprays
  • over-the-counter (OTC) decongestants
  • OTC pain relievers
  • OTC fever reducers
  • antihistamines
  • mucus thinners
  • rest

If home and OTC remedies don’t work, your doctor may recommend other treatments, including:

  • antibiotics
  • nasal corticosteroids and sprays
  • nasal antihistamine sprays
  • oral or injected corticosteroids
  • immunotherapy
  • sinus surgery

Antibiotics only work for sinus infections caused by bacteria. They won’t help infections caused by viruses.

When should you see a doctor?

Call or see the doctor immediately if you have:

  • a fever above 102°F (38.8°C)
  • problems seeing or double vision
  • swelling and redness around the eyes
  • a swollen forehead
  • a stiff neck
  • confusion
  • intense pain and headaches that don’t go away
  • sinus symptoms that last more than 12 weeks

You should also see your doctor if you have multiple sinus infections in 12 months or if OTC medications don’t improve your symptoms.

In some cases, sinus infections can lead to other complications. Contact a doctor immediately if you have:

Learn more: This is what it’s like to live without your sense of smell »

Outlook

If your sinus infection is caused by a virus, it’s possible to pass that virus to other people. They may not develop a sinus infection, but they can develop a cold. If you have a sinus infection, take precautions to prevent the spread of the virus. Wash your hands regularly and sneeze and cough into your elbow instead of your hands. If possible, avoid being in crowded areas to reduce the number of people that could be exposed to the virus.

Often a sinus infection can be treated with rest, home remedies, and OTC treatments, but any serious or prolonged condition should be reviewed by a medical professional.