An estimated 29 million people in the United States have or regularly experience sinusitis, making it a very common condition (1).

If you’ve ever dealt with sinusitis, you likely understand the desire to find effective remedies — and fast. One somewhat controversial remedy is avoiding certain foods that may aggravate or worsen sinusitis symptoms.

This article details 4 foods you may want to avoid with sinusitis and offers other tips to help manage your symptoms.

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Sinusitis, also known as a sinus infection or rhinosinusitis, occurs when the lining of your sinuses becomes inflamed and swollen (2).

While there are many sinuses in the body, sinusitis generally refers to the sinuses connected to the nose, which are four spaces found just above and below the eyes (3).

They’re usually empty and contain a small layer of protective mucus to trap bacteria and keep the area moist. They also help humidify the air you breathe and help your voice resonate, which is why it may sound different when you have a cold (3).

When you have sinusitis, your sinuses become blocked. That blockage can lead to the familiar symptoms of swelling, runny nose, pain or pressure, and difficulty breathing through your nose (2).

Acute sinusitis is most common and occurs for a short period of time (usually 4 weeks or less). If you’ve had symptoms for more than 12 weeks or have recurring infections, you may have chronic sinusitis (2, 4, 5).

The most common causes of sinusitis include (2, 4, 5):

  • the common cold
  • an infection (most commonly a viral infection)
  • seasonal allergies
  • nasal polyps
  • a deviated septum
  • smoking

It’s also thought that certain food allergies and sensitivities may worsen symptoms of sinusitis, although this claim is still hotly debated.


Sinusitis is a common condition in which the nasal sinuses become swollen and inflamed, leading to symptoms like nasal congestion, runny nose, pain or pressure, and difficulty breathing.

Some limited research and anecdotal claims suggest that certain foods may worsen nasal congestion in those with sinusitis.

1. Dairy

For many generations, dairy has been thought to promote the production of mucus and phlegm, which is commonly referred to as the “milk mucus effect.” However, some say this is just an old fallacy.

One randomized, double-blind study including 108 people split participants into either a dairy group or nondairy group. The nondairy group received soy milk and the dairy group received cow’s milk for 4 days. Then, participants reported their symptoms (6).

Participants in the nondairy group experienced significant reductions in nasal mucus secretion compared with participants in the dairy group. The authors concluded that the milk mucus effect theory is plausible, but more research is needed (6).

Another older study showed that allergic reactions to milk may increase the production of nasal polyps, which is a common cause of sinusitis (7).

Still another study showed an increased incidence of chronic sinusitis in those with a milk allergy (8).

Still, limited research exists on the topic. If you suspect that milk may be aggravating your symptoms, talk with a healthcare professional. They may recommend restricting dairy products to see whether your symptoms subside.

However, if you do not have an allergy or sensitivity to dairy, there’s probably no need to remove it from your diet.

2. High sugar foods

A diet high in refined sugars, such as soda, candy, and baked goods (but not the natural sugars found in fruit!), may exacerbate sinusitis symptoms by increasing inflammation.

Some evidence suggests that high sugar diets may worsen sinus symptoms and increase inflammation in children with sinus symptoms, as well as that reducing consumption of added sugar may help improve symptoms and quality of life in this population (9, 10).

Additionally, some healthcare providers recommend avoiding refined sugar as a natural way to reduce sinusitis symptoms in adults (11).

However, research is currently limited.

Nevertheless, most experts agree that eating fewer refined sugars is beneficial for your health. Thus, if you want to try cutting back on sugar to see whether your symptoms subside, there’s likely no harm in doing so.

3. Foods high in histamine

Your body’s white blood cells produce histamine to help fight potential allergens. Histamine is also found in a number of foods (12, 13).

In healthy individuals, histamine consumed through food is quickly broken down. However, those with a histamine intolerance may break it down less effectively, leading to a buildup in your body (10, 11, 12).

This buildup can lead to many symptoms, including those related to sinusitis, such as sneezing, nasal congestion, runny nose, and trouble breathing. Thus, if you have a histamine intolerance, eating foods high in histamine may worsen your symptoms (12, 13, 14).

Foods high in histamine include (12, 13, 14):

  • Most processed meats: sausage, salami, and ham
  • Dried or preserved fish and fish sauces
  • Certain vegetables: tomatoes, avocado, and eggplant
  • Dried fruit: raisins and apricots
  • Aged cheeses
  • Chocolate
  • Fermented foods: sauerkraut, kimchi, yogurt, and vinegar
  • Fermented beverages: kombucha and alcohol

If you suspect that you have a histamine intolerance, talk with a healthcare professional. They can help you safely perform an elimination trial while also ensuring that you meet your nutritional needs (12, 13, 14).

4. Foods high in salicylates

Salicylates are generally beneficial compounds found in many foods, such as (15, 16):

  • Legumes: beans and lentils
  • Vegetables: cauliflower and pickled vegetables
  • Fruits: strawberries, watermelon, plums, and raspberries
  • Grains: oats, corn, and buckwheat
  • Certain herbs and spices: rosemary, thyme, paprika, and turmeric

However, some people may be sensitive to these natural compounds.

If you have a hypersensitivity to salicylates, you may experience unwanted side effects, such as nasal polyps, rhinitis (including nasal congestion, runny nose, sneezing), and difficulty breathing. These symptoms may worsen your sinusitis (16).

One cross-sectional study found an association between a high intake of salicylate foods and exacerbated sinusitis symptoms in people with chronic sinusitis with nasal polyps. However, since the study was observational, it cannot prove cause and effect (17).

Another study showed that those with nasal polyps were significantly more likely to also have salicylate intolerance (18).

Due to this relationship, studies have investigated a salicylate-free diet as a treatment for sinusitis symptoms. One double-blind, crossover study observed positive improvements in rhinosinusitis symptoms after following a salicylate-free diet for 6 weeks (19).

Other studies have also shown a salicylate-free diet to be effective at reducing sinusitis symptoms (16, 20, 21).

If you suspect you have a salicylate sensitivity, talk with a qualified healthcare professional. They may recommend an elimination trial, but like many elimination diets, a salicylate-free diet is very difficult to follow and should only be followed as necessary.


Some limited research suggests that dairy, refined sugars, high histamine foods, and high salicylate foods may worsen sinusitis symptoms, especially in those with sensitivities. However, more research is needed.

Beyond changing your diet, there are many things you can try to alleviate or prevent mild to moderate sinus congestion (22, 23, 24):

  • Drink plenty of fluids. Staying hydrated can thin nasal mucus to help promote drainage.
  • Use a nasal irrigator. Try rinsing your nose with a nasal irrigator, such as a Neti pot, Navage, or bulb syringe, to flush your sinuses. Be sure to use distilled or boiled and cooled water, and properly clean and air dry the device between uses.
  • Use a humidifier. Moist air helps moisten thick mucus in the nasal passage, allowing for decongestion and easier breathing.
  • Take a warm shower. Breathing in warm steam can moisten your sinuses. You can also try breathing over a warm pot of water.
  • Place a warm, wet towel over your nose. This may help alleviate discomfort and promote drainage.
  • Take a nasal decongestant. Over-the-counter nasal decongestants may reduce nasal congestion by opening up your sinuses and alleviating pain and pressure. These come in pill or nasal spray form. Be sure to follow the package directions and check with a doctor before use.
  • Use a nasal saline spray. These sprays may help moisten and shrink swollen nasal membranes to improve breathing.
  • Sleep with your head elevated. This tip may also help to relieve pressure and improve breathing.

If you have chronic or recurring sinusitis, speak with a healthcare provider. They may recommend more advanced treatments.


At-home remedies may help moisten the nasal pathway and promote drainage to reduce your symptoms. If your symptoms persist, speak with a healthcare professional.

From a runny nose to sinus pressure, finding relief from sinusitis symptoms is a priority for many people, especially as fall rolls around.

While controversial, some research suggests that a diet high in dairy and refined sugars may exacerbate sinusitis symptoms. Furthermore, those with a salicylate or histamine sensitivity may experience worsened symptoms after eating foods high in salicylates or histamines.

That said, the research on this topic is sparse and warrants more research. If you’re looking for relief, try some at-home remedies, such as a humidifier, nasal irrigation, or taking a nasal decongestant.

If your symptoms persist or worsen, talk with a healthcare professional.