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How to Recognize and Treat a Sinus Infection (Sinusitis)

There is nothing quite like a sinus infection. The pressure. The pain. Your face and head hurt.  Even your teeth hurt. What gives?

Sinus infections, or acute sinusitis, can put a real damper on your day—or weeks—so they’re nothing to sneeze at. Unfortunately, almost 31 million Americans experience sinus infections each year. 

Sinusitis isn’t a regular old cold, but it can be caused by one. When you feel miserable though, does it really matter? When it comes to treatment, it may.  

Here’s how to determine if you have a sinus infection, how to treat it and ways you can help prevent a future infection.

What is a sinus infection?

Behind your nose is your nasal cavity, or sinuses, the air-filled passages that lie above the bone that forms the roof of your mouth and runs down the back of your throat. 

“Your sinuses can be divided up into three areas, the maxillary sinuses that are behind your cheekbones, the frontal sinuses that are found just above your eyes and the sphenoid sinuses that are behind the bones in your nose,” said Devin Minior, MD, chief medical officer at Banner Urgent Care

Your nasal cavity helps you breathe and keeps you healthy. It does this by helping expel things out that shouldn’t be there. Hence all the sneezing and nose blowing!

“Your body produces mucus to help clear out the nose and the throat of any type of pollen, dirt or bacteria that gets in the throat,” Dr. Minior said. “When it can’t drain, it is an invitation for viruses or bacteria to start growing.”

As mucus builds up, it can lead to (you guessed it!) a sinus infection.

How is a sinus infection different from a cold?

Most sinus infections are caused by a viral infection, but bacterial sinus infections are possible too. They typically form after having a cold or the flu. 

When you have a stuffy or runny nose (nasal discharge), it may be hard to know if you have a regular old cold or a full-blown sinus infection. The biggest clues though are pressure and pain in your face, which are symptoms of a sinus infection.

“You may have a cough, runny nose, congestion, sore throat and fever, but you will have additional symptoms related to your sinuses,” Dr. Minior said. “These may include facial pain, sneezing, really bad congestion (more than just a stuffy nose) and a worsening cough due to sinus congestion.”

Am I at risk for a sinus infection?

Anyone can be at risk for developing a sinus infection in their lifetime, but people with allergic rhinitis or asthma may be more prone to chronic sinusitis.

“In those with severe asthma, sinusitis seems to make asthma symptoms harder to control,” Dr. Minior said. “And vice versa, having asthma can put people at higher risk of developing chronic sinusitis.”

Other things that can contribute to chronic sinus infections include:

  • Problems with the nasal passages, such as nasal polyps or deviated septum
  • Cystic fibrosis (CF) or another immune deficiency disease
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)

Are sinus infections contagious?

If your sinus infection is caused by a virus (like a cold), you can spread the infection (the cold) to another. But a sinus infection alone can’t be spread to another. 

“In the rare case your sinus infection is caused by bacteria, you won’t be contagious,” Dr. Minior said. “However, it’s very difficult to determine the cause (either a viral or bacterial infection) so it’s best to err on the side of caution and assume you’re contagious unless told otherwise by your provider.”

How do you treat a sinus infection?

If you’ve had a sinus infection before, you know just how miserable they can make you feel. Like with anyone who isn’t well, you’ll want relief as quickly as possible. Dr. Minior explained that when it comes to treating sinus infections it comes down to controlling discomfort and mucus production.

“Oftentimes, the treatment is going to be an oral antihistamine or nasal spray, such as a steroid spray, which will help with the symptoms,” Dr. Minior said.

You may also want to try a decongestant, but don’t overuse it. Use a maximum of three days to avoid side effects.

“Sometimes people will overuse, which can cause a rebound effect where it causes some inflammation and swelling in the sinuses, making things worse for you,” Dr. Minior said.

Other things you can do at home that may help include:

  • Clear your nasal passages with a Neti pot or saline rinse
  • Breathe in warm, humid air with a humidifier or hot shower
  • Use a warm, moist towel on your face to reduce swelling and pain
  • Drink lots of water
  • Take an over-the-counter pain reliever

Do I need an antibiotic?

Antibiotics are not needed for most sinus infections. The majority of infections usually get better on their own and all that is needed is supportive care to address symptoms.

“In a subset of people who have a bacterial sinus infection, a doctor may prescribe an antibiotic,” Dr. Minior noted. “For sinusitis to be bacterial, people typically have symptoms for more than 10 days or signs and symptoms that initially improve but then worsen.”

When antibiotics are taken when they aren’t needed, they won’t help and can contribute to antibiotic resistance.

Tips to avoid a sinus infection

“When it comes to preventing a sinus infection, the most important thing you can do is try to avoid upper respiratory infections like colds and bronchitis and avoid others who may be sick,” Dr. Minior said. “And remember to wash your hands frequently, especially during COVID-19 and cold and flu seasons.”

You can also reduce your chances by avoiding things that irritate your nose and sinuses. This includes avoiding potential allergens if you’re allergy-prone, cigarette smoke and polluted air. 

“If you’re allergic to something that causes persistent sinus symptoms, talk to your health care provider about ways to treat your allergies and prevent repeated episodes of sinusitis,” Dr. Minior said. 

Investing in a humidifier also doesn’t hurt. Using a humidifier during cooler, drier months can help add moisture back into the air and help prevent sinus infections.

[Also check out “8 Ways to Help Keep Your Family Healthy This Winter.”]

Takeaway

Sinus infections, also known as acute sinusitis, can be miserable—especially with the pressure and pain. 

Most infections get better on their own, but some may require further care. If your sinus infection isn’t going away or keeps coming back, see your health care provider or an ear, nose and throat specialist. When symptoms last more than 12 weeks, this is considered chronic sinusitis. To find a Banner Health specialist near you, visit bannerhealth.com. 

For more helpful tips, check out:

Cold and Flu Ear, Nose and Throat

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