A Guide to Sinus Infections

Medically Reviewed By Nicole Leigh Aaronson, MD, MBA, CPE, FACS, FAAP
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A sinus infection occurs when a bacterial or viral infection causes the sinuses to become swollen and clogged with fluid. The sinuses usually drain fluid out, but a blockage can occur if the sinuses become swollen or congested. A sinus infection is also called sinusitis. Sinus infections can be acute or chronic. Doctors may prescribe antibiotics or recommend over-the-counter (OTC) medications to treat the infection and its symptoms.

This article explains more about what types of sinus infections can occur, the symptoms of a sinus infection, and how to prevent and treat sinus infections. 

What are the types of sinus infections?

A child blows their nose
Jamie Grill Atlas/Stocksy United

The American College of Allergy, Asthma, & Immunology (ACAAI) explains that there are two types of sinus infections: acute and chronic. 

The symptoms of acute and chronic sinus infections will be the same. The only difference is how long the symptoms last.

According to the ACAAI, acute sinus infections last 3–8 weeks. Chronic sinus infections can last longer than 8 weeks. Some people are more prone to chronic sinus infections because of their sinus structure, allergies, and exposure to triggers.

The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America notes that over 50% of people with moderate or severe asthma also have chronic sinus infections. If you have three or more sinus infections per year, you may have recurrent acute sinusitis.

What are the causes of a sinus infection?

The ACAAI explains that viral or bacterial infections can cause sinus infections. Fungal infections from mold can also be the cause.

There are four main areas of the sinuses: 

  • in your cheeks 
  • behind your forehead and eyebrows
  • on the sides of your nose
  • behind your nose, right in front of your brain

The sinuses are hollow, air filled cavities lined with a thin mucus layer and small hairs that trap invaders such as dust and germs and move them down to the back of the throat or out of the nose. A sinus infection can develop whenever this process is interrupted through mucus buildup or swelling.

What are the symptoms of a sinus infection?

According to the ACAAI, common symptoms of a sinus infection include:

Serious symptoms that need immediate attention

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that you seek medical attention for the following symptoms: 

  • fever that lasts longer than 3–4 days
  • symptoms that get better then get worse
  • symptoms that last 10 days or more without improving
  • severe symptoms, such as facial pain or headache

How do doctors diagnose a sinus infection?

To diagnose a sinus infection, your doctor will ask about your symptoms and perform a physical examination. They will look in your nose, throat, and ears to check for swelling, drainage, or blockages.

Your doctor may have you undergo additional tests to confirm a diagnosis. These tests include:

  • Nasal endoscopy: An otolaryngologist, or an ear, nose, and throat specialist, may look at your nasal and sinus passages using an endoscope. An endoscope is a small, lighted tube with a camera.
  • Mucus culture: If your symptoms do not improve, your doctor may take a sample of the mucus in your nose or sinuses to test for a bacterial infection.
  • Allergy testing: If your doctor thinks that allergies are causing the sinus infection, an allergist may test you for allergies to help you get them under control and avoid future sinus infections.

For more severe or chronic conditions, testing can include:

  • Bone biopsy: In some severe cases of a fungal sinus infection, the fungus can penetrate the bones. Your doctor can perform a biopsy to take a bone sample and analyze it for signs of infection.
  • Sinus tissue biopsy: Doctors can take samples of your sinus tissue to check for a rare disorder called immotile cilia syndrome, which can cause recurrent infections.
  • CT scan: Doctors may use this imaging test to examine your sinus cavity for signs of infection.

What are the treatments for a sinus infection?

Prescription medications and home remedies can treat sinus infections. Prescription treatments will help clear up a bacterial or fungal sinus infection. Home remedies will not make the sinus infection go away, but they could help relieve some of your symptoms. In rare cases, surgery may be necessary.

Medical treatments for sinus infections

If a bacterial infection is causing your sinus infection and your symptoms have been present for longer than 7–10 days, doctors will typically prescribe antibiotics or oral steroids.

That said, long-term or frequent antibiotic use can contribute to antibiotic resistance. Your doctor may want to see whether or not your symptoms improve in a week or so before prescribing antibiotics.

If a fungal infection is causing your sinus infection, doctors will prescribe antifungal medications or oral steroids. In some cases, you may need surgery.

Other treatments

  • Nasal decongestants: According to the ACAAI, you should use caution with OTC nasal decongestant sprays. They can be helpful, but only if you do not use them for longer than 3 days. If you use OTC nasal decongestants for longer than 3 days, they can make swelling in the sinuses worse. 
  • Antihistamines: Antihistamines can help reduce inflammation resulting from allergies.
  • Topical corticosteroids: Prescription nasal sprays containing corticosteroids can help prevent and treat inflammation. They can also treat nasal polyps, which are growths in the nasal or sinus passages. 

Surgical treatment

If nasal structural issues have contributed to your sinus infection, your doctor may recommend surgery to open up your nasal passages or remove the polyps.

Home remedies for sinus infections 

Sinus infection home remedies can help alleviate pain and other symptoms of acute and chronic sinus infections.

The CDC recommends the following home treatments for sinus infections:

  • Use a warm compress, such as a warm towel, on your face.
  • Use a sterile nasal rinse or spray to help flush out the sinuses.
  • Breathe in steam from a hot shower or bowl of water.

You can also use OTC medications, such as ibuprofen and acetaminophen, to help relieve headaches and facial pain.

What are the potential complications of a sinus infection?

Although you can wait to see whether or not common sinus infection symptoms clear up on their own, you should seek immediate medical treatment if you notice more serious symptoms. These symptoms include:

  • vision changes and swelling around the eyes, which could indicate a more serious infection
  • neck stiffness, which could indicate that the infection has spread to the brain, leading to possible meningitis or a brain abscess, both of which are life threatening without treatment

What are the risk factors for a sinus infection?

According to the CDC, the risk factors for a sinus infection include:

What is the outlook for someone with a sinus infection?

The outlook for someone with a sinus infection is typically good because, in most cases, antibiotics will clear up the infection.

If your sinus infection does not clear up with treatment or keeps coming back, your doctor may recommend additional testing to determine the cause.

How can you prevent a sinus infection?

There are some steps you can take to prevent sinus infections, including:

  • washing your hands regularly and thoroughly
  • keeping your distance from people who have a cold or another respiratory illness
  • using an air humidifier and cleaning it regularly
  • avoiding smoking and staying away from secondhand smoke
  • staying up-to-date on all recommended vaccines, especially for respiratory illnesses such as COVID-19, the flu, and pneumonia

FAQ

These are some other frequently asked questions about sinus infections.

Is a sinus infection contagious?

A sinus infection itself is not contagious, but the viral or bacterial infection that caused it could be contagious. 

Can a sinus infection make your teeth hurt?

Sinus infections can make your teeth hurt. You have sinus cavities located behind your cheekbones and behind your nose, both of which can cause tooth pain

What is the fastest way to get rid of a sinus infection? 

The CDC explains that many sinus infections will clear up on their own. However, some will need antibiotics for treatment. 

How long does a sinus infection last? 

Acute sinus infections typically last 3–8 weeks. Chronic sinus infections can last longer than 8 weeks. 

How do you know if you have a sinus infection or COVID-19? 

The symptoms of COVID-19 and sinus infections can be very similar. If your COVID-19 test comes back negative, contact your doctor. They will be able to examine you for signs of a sinus infection.

Summary

A sinus infection occurs when the sinuses become swollen and clogged with fluid, allowing bacteria and viruses to grow and cause an infection. These infections can be acute or chronic.

Common sinus infection symptoms include thick nasal discharge, facial pressure or pain, and frontal headaches. Your doctor can prescribe antibiotics or recommend OTC medications.

If you are experiencing symptoms consistent with a sinus infection, talk with your doctor.

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Medical Reviewer: Nicole Leigh Aaronson, MD, MBA, CPE, FACS, FAAP
Last Review Date: 2022 May 20
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.