Medically reviewed by Mary Lucas, RN
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 11/18/2020
Sinus infection, or sinusitis, occurs when an infection develops in the air-filled cavities in your head, called sinuses, causing them to become inflamed and swollen.
Most sinus infections are caused by viruses. However, some sinus infections develop due to exposure to infectious bacteria or even fungi. Sinus infections often linger and continue to produce symptoms after the initial cause of the infection, such as a virus, is treated.
Sinus infections are incredibly common. According to the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, more than 30 million people are affected by sinus infections every year in the US alone. In fact, sinusitis is one of the most common diagnoses in primary care.
Although sinus infections can be frustrating to deal with, most can be treated using a combination of prescription and over-the-counter medications.
Below, we’ve listed the symptoms you may experience if you have a sinus infection, as well as the key causes of a sinus infection. We’ve also explained how your healthcare provider may diagnose a sinus infection, as well as the treatment and prevention options that are available to you.
Sinus infections can produce a variety of symptoms, some of which are similar to those of the nasal inflammation (rhinitis) that often develops with a viral infection such as the common cold or flu.
Common symptoms of a sinus infection include:
Nasal discharge that is greenish
A feeling of tenderness or pressure under or between your eyes, near the bridge of your nose, in your cheeks and forehead and elsewhere on your face
Nasal stuffiness or congestion (blocked nose)
Postnasal drip (extra mucus from the nose that can accumulate in your throat)
Weakness or fatigue
Halitosis (bad breath)
Pain and discomfort in the teeth
Headaches, particularly around the forehead and temples
If you have a sinus infection, you may find it harder to breathe through your nose. As with other medical conditions, your symptoms may vary based on your health and the type and severity of your sinus infection.
Sinusitis usually lasts for about seven to 10 days in adults, although your symptoms may vary in severity during this time. Around a quarter of people with a sinus infection still experience some symptoms after 14 days.
Most cases of sinus infection don’t lead to any complications. However, some sinus infections can cause health complications, including serious infections that can spread to other parts of the body. Potential complications of a sinus infection include:
Orbital. Research indicates that the most common complications arising from sinus infections are usually orbital, or in or around the eye socket. Common orbital issues that may arise include cavernous sinus thrombosis, orbital and subperiosteal abscesses, inflammatory oedema and orbital cellulitis.
Intracranial. “Intracranial” essentially means inside the skull. Intracranial complications are typically the second-most common form of complication you can expect from a sinus infection. Common intracranial issues that may arise include meningitis, intracerebral and brain abscesses and dural sinus thrombosis.
Local. The rarest complications from a sinus infection come in the form local complications in and around the face and head. Local complications include things like facial abscesses and cellulitis, osteomyelitis and mucopyocele/mucocele.
Complications from a sinus infection are rare. However, it’s important to take action if you think that you’re at risk of developing a complication. Talk to a healthcare professional as soon as possible if you start to notice any of the following symptoms:
Stiff neck or mental confusion
Swelling that affects your cheeks, forehead or the roof of your mouth
Difficulty breathing, speaking or swallowing
Swollen, red, painful eye(s)
If you have a compromised immune system due to an ongoing medical treatment or a condition such as HIV/AIDS, it’s important to talk to a healthcare professional as soon as you start to notice any symptoms of a sinus infection.
Even if you don’t have any symptoms that could indicate a complication, talking to a doctor can help you get an accurate diagnosis and understand more about the options that are available to treat your sinus infection.
Most sinus infections are caused by viruses. You may notice a sinus infection after you have a viral infection, such as a cold. Infections such as the cold can cause fluid to build up in your sinuses, creating an environment for germs to grow. .
Germs can multiple easily inside this environment. When infectious bacteria grow inside your sinuses, it can lead to a bacterial sinus infection.
Sinus infections can affect people of all ages and backgrounds. You may have a higher risk of developing a sinus infection if you:
Have recently had a cold
Suffer from seasonal allergies
Smoke cigarettes or other tobacco products, or spend time in an environment in which you’re exposed to secondhand smoke
Have a structural problem in your sinuses, such as nasal polyps (a type of growth that can develop in the lining of the nose or sinuses) or a deviated septum
Have a weakened immune system due to a medical condition, cancer treatment or use of medications that suppress your immune system
Misuse medications that are linked to chronic sinus infections, such as decongestant nasal sprays
To diagnose a sinus infection, your healthcare provider will ask you about your symptoms. They may ask when you first noticed sinus infection symptoms, if you’ve recently been sick with the flu or a cold, or if you have any allergies or other medication conditions.
Your healthcare provider may examine your nose and throat to check for any physical symptoms of a sinus infection. Most of the time, they’ll be able to make an accurate diagnosis based on a physical exam and by talking to you about your symptoms.
If your healthcare provider needs more information to diagnose you with a sinus infection, or to rule out any other potential problems, they may ask you to take one or several of the following tests:
CT scan. This type of test allows your healthcare provider to see your sinuses in more detail. It can help to detect complications of sinusitis and check to see if your symptoms are linked to an abnormality in your sinuses.
Endoscopy. This involves using an endoscope — a long, thin tube with a camera and light at its end — to inspect your sinuses.
Allergy tests. In certain cases, sinusitis is caused by an allergy rather than a viral or bacterial infection. If your healthcare provider thinks that your symptoms are caused by an allergic reaction, they may ask you to take a skin allergy test.
Sinus/nasal sample test. If your sinus infection doesn’t seem to respond to treatment, your healthcare provider may ask you to provide a nasal or sinus sample for testing. This can help to identify the cause of your symptoms, such as a bacterial infection.
It’s worth noting that the first three tests are usually administered only in cases of recurrent or chronic sinusitis that doesn’t resolve itself over time.
Most of the time, a sinus infection will get better on its own without any need for treatment with antibiotics.
To speed up the recovery process, you can use a combination of over-the-counter medications and at-home lifestyle changes to help your nose drain out excess mucus. Try the following:
Stay hydrated. Drink plenty of water throughout the day. Not only will keeping hydrated help you to stay healthy in general — it will also help to thin and loosen up the mucus in your nose and sinuses, improving drainage.
Use over-the-counter products to ease congestion. Nasal sprays with phenylephrine or oxymetazoline can help to decongest your sinuses. However, it’s important not to use them too much, as this can cause dependence and irritation.
Other over-the-counter medications include nasal decongestants with phenylephrine or pseudoephedrine. These can help to get rid of nasal congestion, but may cause certain cardiovascular side effects.
If you have high blood pressure, heart problems or often feel jittery and find it hard to sleep after using decongestants, talk to your healthcare provider before using any medications that contain these ingredients.
Use over-the-counter pain relievers to deal with pain and discomfort. Medications like acetaminophen (Tylenol®) and ibuprofen (Advil®) can help to relieve the pain caused by pressure in your sinuses.
While it’s okay to use aspirin if you’re an adult, aspirin should not be given to children or teenagers, as it can potentially cause a dangerous illness called Reye’s syndrome.
Use a saline spray to clear your sinuses. If you prefer not to use medication, a saline nasal spray can help to rinse your sinuses. You can buy these from most supermarkets and pharmacies, or make a simple saltwater nasal spray at home.
Sleep with an extra pillow. Elevating your head while sleeping with an extra pillow is an easy way to help drain mucus from your sinuses. If you have pain on one side of your face, sleep on the side that isn’t affected.
Use steam to open your nasal passages. Steam can help to relieve pressure in your sinuses. Try taking a long, warm shower, or drink hot tea, soup or other hot and steamy drinks several times daily to draw steam into your nasal passages.
Use a warm compress to relieve pain. If your sinuses are painful, try applying a warm compress to your face.
Only use antihistamines if necessary. Although antihistamines are helpful for allergy symptoms, they can also thicken mucus, making it harder for your nasal passages and sinuses to drain.
Avoid drinking alcohol. Alcohol can worsen swelling in the sinuses, causing them to become more congested and your symptoms to worsen.
Most cases of sinus infection don’t require any treatment with antibiotics. However, if you have a severe sinus infection, or your sinus infection doesn’t appear to improve on its own after several days of treatment at home, your healthcare provider may prescribe an antibiotic.
A variety of bacteria can contribute to sinus infections. Your healthcare provider will choose the most effective antibiotic for you based on your symptoms, general health and other factors.
If you’re prescribed an antibiotic to treat a sinus infection, it’s essential that you take it exactly as prescribed by your healthcare provider. Make sure that you finish the entire course of medication, even if you no longer have any symptoms. This will help to prevent the infection from returning.
The viruses and bacteria that cause sinus infections are contagious, meaning they can spread from other people to you and vice-versa. The following tips can help you to reduce your risk of catching or spreading the germs that cause sinus infections:
Get the flu and pneumococcal vaccines. These vaccines lower your risk of becoming sick with influenza or pneumococcal disease, which can lead to viral infections and other health issues.
The CDC has detailed information about the influenza (flu) vaccine and pneumococcal vaccine, including information on how and where you can get vaccinated.
Wash your hands frequently and thoroughly. Washing your hands regularly helps to remove bacteria and viruses that can spread infections. Follow the CDC’s guidelines for hand washing to protect yourself and your family from getting sick.
Avoid close contact with sick people. People with colds, the flu and other respiratory infections can pass them on to others. If you’re sick, limit your contact with other people to reduce your risk of spreading infections.
Use a humidifier at home. If you have a humidifier in your home, use it to keep the air slightly humid. Study data shows that cold temperatures and low humidity can increase the likelihood of respiratory illnesses spreading.
Avoid smoking and secondhand smoke. If you smoke, try to quit to reduce your risk of developing respiratory infections and improve your general health. If you don’t smoke, try to limit your exposure to secondhand smoke and other irritants.
If you have a sinus infection, talking to a healthcare professional can help you learn more about the best options for treating your symptoms, preventing complications and improving your recovery.
Consult with a licensed healthcare provider now to discuss your symptoms and learn more about what you can do to treat and manage a sinus infection (sinusitis).
If appropriate, the provider can write you a prescription on the spot and send it directly to a local pharmacy of your choice, allowing you to get the relief you need fast, all without having to go to a healthcare professional’s office.
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