Have you ever wondered what your sinuses do for you other than getting stuffed up when you have a cold? You may think the sinus cavities, located near your nose, just help with breathing, so you might be surprised at just how important they are.
Devin Minior, MD, is the chief medical officer for Banner Urgent Care. He says the sinuses not only help us speak, but they also play an important role in keeping us healthy.
“The mucus production helps to clear out the nose and the throat of any type of pollen, dirt or even bacteria that gets in the throat,” Dr. Minior said.
And, just like so many other places in the body, your sinuses can get infected, too.
What causes a sinus infection?
The sinuses are divided up into three specific areas:
- The maxillary sinuses are behind your cheekbones
- The frontal sinuses can be found in the center of your forehead just above your eyes
- And, the sphenoid sinuses are behind bones in your nose
When they become infected, there are two likely culprits—a virus or bacteria. Dr. Minior says most sinus infections are caused by a virus.
“The vast majority—98% of the time—it’s going to be a viral infection,” Dr. Minior said. “Typically, any nasal infection or signs and symptoms of a sinusitis less than 10 days of duration will likely be a viral infection.”
Dr. Minior explains, the symptoms of a sinus infection are very similar to the common cold. You may have a cough, congestion, sore throat and a fever, but you also will have additional symptoms relating to the sinuses. These include:
- Facial pain
- Really bad nasal congestion
- A worsening cough due to sinus congestion
And, don’t think the color of any mucus can tell you if it is a viral or bacterial infection. Dr. Minior says really, mucus production is a signal that there is something wrong, a general sign of inflammation or an infection.
Are sinus infections contagious?
If your sinus infection is caused by a virus, then yes, the virus itself is contagious, but not the infection. In other words, you can spread the virus to someone else causing them to develop a cold. Although that cold could then develop into a sinus infection, you cannot spread the original sinus infection. As with other viruses, the best way to avoid spreading it is by practicing good hygiene—washing your hands frequently and covering your cough or sneeze—especially when around others, and staying home when feeling sick.
In the rare case that your sinus infection is caused by a bacteria, it would not be contagious. However, it is very difficult to determine if the cause of a sinus infection is bacterial or viral since symptoms are similar for both. So, it is best to err on the side of caution and assume you are contagious unless told otherwise by your doctor.
How to treat a sinus infection
If you’ve had a sinus infection, you know how miserable they can make you feel, and you’ll want relief as quickly as possible. Dr. Minior explains treating a sinus infection comes down to controlling discomfort and mucus production.
“Oftentimes, the treatment is going to be an oral antihistamine or a nasal spray, such as a steroid spray, which will help with the symptoms,” Dr. Minior said.
Other things you can do at home include over-the-counter options. Dr. Minior suggests a Neti pot, which is basically using saline to rinse out the sinuses, as one option that has shown to be effective for viral infections and for allergies.
You may also want to try a decongestant. However, you need to be careful not to overuse it.
“Sometimes people will use a decongestant. In an acute case of a sinusitis, this can be used for several days,” Dr. Minior said. “Typically, we say a maximum of three days.”
Overuse can cause a “rebound effect,” according to Dr. Minior, which can result in some inflammation and swelling in the sinuses. It can make things a little worse for you.
Updated: Article content was updated on January 24, 2022.