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The Call-On-Doc Guide to Sinus Infections

Published on Mar 15, 2023 | 10:32 AM

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Sinus infections, or sinusitis, can make your day-to-day routine a struggle. Varying in severity, millions of adults and children in the United States are diagnosed yearly with the condition. Specifically affecting the tissue lining in the sinuses, sinusitis occurs when that part of the body becomes inflamed or infected. While common and often minor, it can be a condition that can spiral into something worse and make even simple tasks difficult. 

What are sinusitis symptoms?

Sinusitis can manifest in a variety of symptoms, which can vary in severity and duration depending on a variety of factors. According to the CDC, these are the most common:

  • Cough: A persistent cough often caused by post-nasal drip or mucus draining down the back of the throat.
  • Discolored nasal discharge: Thick, yellow, or green mucus that may drain from the nose or down the back of the throat.
  • Facial pain/pressure: A sensation of tightness or discomfort in the face, particularly around the cheeks and eyes.
  • Fatigue: Feeling tired or run down due to your body's immune response to the infection.
  • Foul breath: Infected sinuses will either produce foul-smelling mucus or the bacteria infecting that part of the body spread to the nasal cavities and throat. 
  • Headache: A dull, throbbing pain in the forehead, cheekbones, or behind the eyes, often made worse by bending over or lying down.
  • Nasal congestion: A feeling of stuffiness or blockage in the nasal passages, making breathing difficult.
  • Reduced smell/taste: A diminished ability to detect odors or flavors can be caused by swelling or inflammation of the nasal passages.
  • Vertigo: Depending on the cause, a sinus infection 

It's important to note that not all sinusitis symptoms are the same for everyone, and some individuals may experience only a few or none of these symptoms. If your symptoms are persistent or causing discomfort, get prescription treatment by submitting an online consultation.

When should you suspect a sinus infection?

According to the American College of Allergy, Asthma, & Immunology, feeling under the weather for several days and experiencing symptoms such as facial pain, headache, nasal congestion, and discolored nasal discharge is a direct indication of a sinus infection. The standard time many professionals agree with is 10 days with constant symptoms. However, if your symptoms worsen after 5-7 days of initial improvement, then a consultation with a treatment plan is recommended. Additionally, if you have a history of chronic sinusitis, allergies, or recently had a cold or flu, your chances of developing a sinus infection may be higher.

What causes sinus infections?

According to WebMD, sinus infections have a variety of causes. Most of them have to do with the tissue lining the sinuses and where they come from or how they develop in the body. Here are some of the most common causes of sinusitis::

Allergies: Allergic reactions to airborne particles such as pollen, dust, and animal dander can cause inflammation in the sinuses and lead to sinusitis.

Bacterial infections: Bacteria can also infect the sinuses, particularly in cases of acute sinusitis.

Dental infections: Infections in the teeth or gums can spread to the sinuses and cause sinusitis.

Deviated septum: A crooked or misaligned septum can block the sinuses and make them more susceptible to infection.

Fungal infections: Fungal infections are rare but can occur in individuals with weakened immune systems.

Nasal polyps: Noncancerous growths in the nasal passages or sinuses can cause obstruction and lead to chronic sinusitis.

Viral infections: The common cold and influenza (flu) are the most common causes of viral sinusitis.

It's important to note that a combination of factors can cause sinusitis. For example, a viral infection may trigger inflammation in the sinuses, leading to a bacterial infection. Therefore, identifying the underlying cause of sinusitis is essential for determining the appropriate treatment.

How long does it take for sinusitis to clear up?

The duration of sinusitis can vary depending on the type and severity of the infection. According to Healthline, sinus infections can come in four phases  (acute, subacute, recurrent acute, and chronic), but most cases are referred to as "acute" or "chronic." 

In general, acute sinusitis caused by a viral infection can last up to two weeks, while bacterial sinusitis may last up to four weeks. Chronic sinusitis, which lasts for more than 12 weeks despite treatment, may require long-term management and can be caused by a variety of factors.

Chronic sinusitis may require more aggressive treatment, such as nasal corticosteroids or immunotherapy, to manage inflammation and reduce the risk of complications. The duration of treatment for chronic sinusitis can vary depending on the underlying cause and severity of the condition. It's important to follow up with a healthcare provider to ensure proper management of chronic sinusitis.

Are sinus infections contagious?

Yes, but not in all cases. According to OSF Healthcare, many cases of sinusitis are due to the patient catching a virus that targets that part of the body. In the instance that it is contagious, the time it can be passed on is short-lived but it can infect other people through the patient’s mouth and hands. We suggest covering your mouth when you sneeze or cough and washing your hands whenever possible. 

How do you tell if a sinus infection is viral or bacterial?

It can be difficult to determine whether a sinus infection is caused by a virus or bacteria based on symptoms alone, as many of the symptoms are similar. However, there are some general differences that may provide clues as to the cause of the infection.

Viral sinus infections are the most common type and are typically associated with symptoms such as:

  • Clear or white nasal discharge
  • Congestion
  • Mild headache or facial pain
  • Sore throat
  • Low-grade fever
  • Cough

Symptoms of bacterial sinus infections, on the other hand, may include:

  • Thick, colored nasal discharge 
  • Severe congestion
  • Facial pain, especially when bending forward
  • High fever
  • Tooth pain
  • Fatigue

It's important to note that viral and bacterial sinus infections can share some of these symptoms and that the only way to accurately determine the cause of the infection is through a medical evaluation. If you suspect that you have a sinus infection, it's recommended to consult with a healthcare provider for proper diagnosis and treatment.

When should I worry about sinusitis?

Most cases of sinusitis, also known as a sinus infection, are mild and can be managed with home remedies or over-the-counter medications. However, there are certain signs and symptoms that may indicate a more serious condition and warrant medical attention. Here are some situations when you should seek medical care for sinusitis:

  • High fever: If your temperature is above 101.5 degrees Fahrenheit, this may indicate a bacterial infection that requires antibiotics.
  • Ongoing vertigo: While common for brief periods, the inclusion of dizziness in any infection should be worrying as it means the condition has spread to the vestibular system. 
  • Symptoms longer than 10 days: If your symptoms persist for more than 10 days, it's a good idea to see a healthcare provider. This may indicate a bacterial infection that requires antibiotics.
  • Severe pain or swelling: If you experience severe facial pain or swelling around the eyes, this may indicate a more serious infection that requires immediate medical attention.
  • Vision problems: If you experience vision problems or double vision, it may indicate that your sinusitis is affecting your eye muscles or optic nerve.

If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, it's important to seek medical attention to ensure proper diagnosis and treatment. Left untreated, sinus infections exhibiting severe symptoms can leave the body vulnerable and lead to worse conditions. 

Can a sinus infection lead to anything else?

Yes, a sinus infection can lead to various complications, especially if left untreated or if the infection spreads beyond the sinuses. Some of the potential complications associated with sinusitis include:

  • Abscesses: Pus-filled abscesses can form in the sinuses, leading to more severe symptoms and potential complications.
  • Chronic sinusitis: If symptoms persist for more than 12 weeks despite treatment, you may be diagnosed with chronic sinusitis. This condition can be difficult to manage and may require ongoing treatment.
  • Infection spread: In rare cases, a sinus infection can spread to the eyes, brain, or other parts of the body, leading to more serious infections.
  • Meningitis: In rare cases, a sinus infection can spread to the brain and cause meningitis, a serious and potentially life-threatening condition.
  • Orbital cellulitis: A bacterial infection that spreads from the sinuses to the eye socket can cause a condition called orbital cellulitis. Symptoms may include redness, swelling, and pain around the eye, vision changes, and fever.
  • Osteomyelitis: Infection can spread to the bones of the face, causing a condition called osteomyelitis.
  • Vision problems: If the infection spreads to the eye socket, it can cause swelling and pressure that can lead to vision changes or even vision loss.

What is the best treatment for sinus infection?

The best treatment for a sinus infection depends on the underlying cause of the infection, as well as the severity and duration of symptoms. While prescription medication is generally the most effective, some methods of medical intervention might need to be considered, with the most common forms of sinus infection treatment including:

  • Antibiotics: If the sinus infection is bacterial, your healthcare provider may prescribe antibiotics to help clear the infection. It's important to take the full course of antibiotics, even if you start feeling better, to prevent the infection from returning or developing antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
  • Steroids: In some cases, a short course of oral or nasal corticosteroids may be prescribed to help reduce inflammation and swelling in the sinuses, which can help relieve symptoms.
  • Surgery: If other treatments have not been effective, or if there is a structural problem in the sinuses, surgery may be necessary to correct the issue.
  • Symptom relief: Over-the-counter pain relievers, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen, can help relieve pain and reduce fever. Decongestants, such as pseudoephedrine or phenylephrine, can help reduce nasal congestion. Saline nasal sprays or irrigation can also help alleviate symptoms by flushing out mucus and irritants from the sinuses.

It's important to consult with your healthcare provider for an accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment plan. They can help determine the underlying cause of your sinus infection and recommend the most effective treatment to help you feel better.

How can I treat sinusitis at home?

There are several ways you can manage the symptoms of sinusitis at home:

  • Avoid irritants: Avoid exposure to irritants like cigarette smoke, dust, and pollution, which can aggravate your sinuses.
  • Hydration: Drink plenty of fluids, such as water, tea, and broth, to help thin out mucus and make it easier to drain from your sinuses.
  • Over-the-counter medication: Over-the-counter pain relievers, decongestants, and saline nasal sprays can help relieve symptoms. However, it's important to follow the recommended dosages and consult with a healthcare provider before taking any new medication, especially if you have underlying health conditions or are taking other medications.
  • Rest: Get plenty of rest and avoid overexertion to help your body recover and fight off the infection.
  • Saline nasal rinses: Use a saline nasal rinse or nasal irrigation system to help flush out mucus and irritants from your sinuses.
  • Steam inhalation: Inhale steam regularly from a hot shower or a bowl of hot water with a towel draped over your head to help loosen mucus and relieve congestion.
  • Warm compresses: Use a warm compress, such as a washcloth soaked in warm water, to help relieve facial pain and pressure.

It's important to note that home remedies may not be effective for everyone, and if your symptoms persist or worsen, you should seek medical attention. Additionally, if you have a history of chronic sinusitis or other underlying health conditions, it's important to consult with your healthcare provider before trying any new home remedies or over-the-counter medications.

Source:

  1. “Sinus Infection (Sinusitis) | Antibiotic Use.” CDC, 27 August 2019, https://www.cdc.gov/antibiotic-use/sinus-infection.html.
  2. “Sinus Infection | Causes, Symptoms & Treatment | ACAAI Public Website.” acaai, American College of Allergy Asthma and Immunology, https://acaai.org/allergies/allergic-conditions/sinus-infection/.
  3. Nazario, Brunilda. “Sinus Infection (Sinusitis): Symptoms, Causes, Duration, & Treatment.” WebMD, 22 February 2023, https://www.webmd.com/allergies/sinusitis-and-sinus-infection.
  4. Aaronson, Nicole Leigh. “9 Symptoms of a Sinus Infection and When to See a Doctor.” Healthline, 30 November 2021, https://www.healthline.com/health/cold-flu/sinus-infection-symptoms#types.
  5. Coon, Lisa. “Is it a cold or sinus infection -- and am I contagious?” OSF HealthCare, 5 November 2020, https://www.osfhealthcare.org/blog/is-it-a-cold-or-sinus-infection-and-am-i-contagious/.

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Wayne C. Hahne,

English graduate and Call-On-Doc’s medical resource guide, Wayne C. Hahne is an experienced and passionate medical education content expert. Through diligent research, provider interviews and utilizing the industry's leading resources for wellness information, it is Mr. Hahne’s personal mission to educate the general public on medical conditions with in-depth and easy-to-understand written guides.

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