Sinus Infection

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What is a sinus infection?

A sinus infection, also called sinusitis, is a condition that occurs when fluid builds up in the sinus cavities behind the nose and eyes. Normally the fluid drains on its own, but inflammation and congestion can block drainage, allowing germs to flourish. This results in a sinus infection.

Sinus infections can happen to anyone, but people who have had a cold, have sinus allergies, or who smoke have a higher risk. Having a weakened immune system can also increase the chance of developing a sinus infection.

Symptoms of a sinus infection are similar to common cold symptoms including runny nose, congestion and sore throat. But sinus infection symptoms may also include green or yellow mucus, ear pain, and a feeling of pressure in the face. Serious sinus infection symptoms, such as neck stiffness, confusion or vision changes, should be treated right away, as they could indicate a serious, even life-threatening condition.

Sinus infections are often caused by viruses, but can also be caused by bacteria or mold. Viral sinus infections will usually go away on their own, but symptoms may last for a week or longer. Bacterial or fungal since infections may need medication to clear up. Sinus infection home remedies can help alleviate pain and other symptoms. You can use painkillers, a nasal rinse, or nasal decongestants for relief.

What are the symptoms of a sinus infection?

While a sinus infection isn’t the same as a typical cold, many of the symptoms of a sinus infection are the same. Some sinus infection symptoms are also similar to symptoms of seasonal allergies.

Common symptoms of sinus infection

The most common symptoms of a sinus infection are:

  • Stuffy or runny nose

  • Thick yellow or green mucus

  • Pressure or pain in the cheeks, eyes, forehead and nose

  • Headache

  • Pain in the ears or teeth 

  • Post-nasal drainage and sore throat

  • Cough 

  • Fatigue

  • Fever 

  • Bad breath

Serious symptoms that need immediate attention

Some symptoms indicate the sinus infection may be spreading to the eyes or brain. This is rare but can be very serious. These symptoms include:

If you experience any of these serious symptoms with a sinus infection, call your doctor right away to get immediate treatment.

What causes a sinus infection?

When inflammation blocks the fluid that normally drains from the sinuses, it begins to build up in the open, air-filled spaces within the skull bones behind the face (the sinuses). Then germs grow in the fluid and cause an infection.

Sinus infections can be caused by viruses, bacteria or fungus. Most of the time a virus is the culprit, usually from a worsening cold.

Health conditions that can cause a sinus infection

Many times, another health condition can cause a sinus infection. Sinus infection causes include:

  • A bad cold

  • Seasonal allergies 

  • Growths called polyps in the sinuses 

  • A deviated septum

What are the risk factors for a sinus infection?

Anyone of any age can get a sinus infection, but some people have a higher risk. Risk factors for sinus infection include:

  • Getting a cold that doesn’t go away after a week or two

  • Having allergies that affect your nasal passages

  • Having a weakened immune system due to a medical condition or immunosuppressive drugs

  • Smoking 

Reducing your risk of sinus infection

While there are some things you can’t change, there are some steps you can take to lower your risk of sinus infection, including:

  • Regular, thorough hand washing, especially during cold and flu season

  • Cleaning high-touch surfaces regularly

  • Keeping your distance from people who have a cold, and not sharing drinks with others

  • Keeping allergy symptoms under control

  • Using a humidifier and cleaning it regularly

  • Stopping smoking and staying away from secondhand smoke

If you have risk factors for sinus infections and start developing symptoms that don’t go away, it’s important to see your doctor for a diagnosis. You may need antibiotics if your sinus infection is caused by bacteria.

How do doctors diagnose a sinus infection?

If you develop symptoms of a sinus infection, it’s time to see your primary care physician. The doctor will ask about your symptoms and do a physical exam. During the physical exam, your doctor or nurse practitioner will look in your nose, throat and ears to check for swelling, drainage or blockage.

To diagnose a sinus infection your healthcare practitioner will ask you several questions, including:

  • What are all your symptoms? 

  • How long have you been experiencing these symptoms?

  • Have your symptoms gotten progressively worse, or have they gotten better and then worse again?

  • Have you had a bad cold recently, or do you have seasonal allergies?

  • What other health conditions do you have?

Tests for sinus infection

While most cases of sinus infection can be diagnosed through a physical exam and medical history, your healthcare provider may have you undergo additional testing to confirm a diagnosis.

Tests doctors may use include:

  • Nasal endoscopy: The provider, often an ear, nose, and throat doctor (ENT), may use an endoscope, which is a thin tube with a light and tiny camera at the end, to look inside your nose.

  • CT scan: An imaging test called a computed tomography (CT) scan may be used to get pictures of your sinus cavity. This is usually reserved for more serious symptoms to check for complications or nasal deformities.

  • Mucus culture: If symptoms don’t improve, your doctor may get a sample of the mucus in your nose to diagnose a bacterial infection.

  • Allergy testing: If your doctor thinks allergies are causing the sinus infection, you may be tested for allergies, so you can get them under control and avoid future sinus infections.

  • Bone biopsy: In some cases of a fungal sinus infection, the fungus can penetrate the bones. A biopsy of the bone can determine whether this has happened.

What are the treatments for a sinus infection?

There are several sinus infection treatment options, both prescription and home remedies. Home remedies won’t make the sinus infection go away, but they’ll help you feel better. Prescription treatments will help clear up a bacterial or fungal sinus infection.

Home remedies for sinus infections 

A sinus infection caused by a virus just has to run its course and will go away on its own. In the meantime, sinus infection home remedies can provide some relief from your symptoms.

Follow these tips to address a viral sinus infection at home:

  • An over-the-counter nasal decongestant spray, also called nasal corticosteroids, will help reduce inflammation, but don’t use for an extended time to avoid dependence.

  • Painkillers, such as ibuprofen and acetaminophen, will help relieve headache and facial pain. A warm, damp towel on your face may also help with pain relief.

  • A sterile nasal rinse can help flush out the sinuses, and a saline spray will help moisten nasal passages.

  • Drink lots of fluids to thin out mucus.

  • Sleep with your head propped up to help you breathe.

  • Breathe in steam from a hot shower.

Medical treatments for sinus infections

If your sinus infection is caused by bacteria, you will need antibiotics to treat it. It’s important not to treat a viral sinus infection with antibiotics. They won’t help the infection go away, and taking them unnecessarily can contribute to antibiotic resistance. Your doctor may want to see whether your symptoms improve in a week or so before prescribing antibiotics.

Sinus infections caused by fungus may require anti-fungal treatment. But if it’s an allergic fungal sinus infection, you’ll likely need an oral steroid rather than an antifungal agent.

If nasal deformities have contributed to your sinus infection and the infection isn’t going away despite other treatments, your doctor may recommend surgery to correct a deviated septum or remove polyps. Your doctor will likely reserve surgery only if you have chronic sinus infections.

What are the potential complications of a sinus infection?

While it’s OK to wait to see whether common sinus infection symptoms clear up on their own, don’t delay getting medical treatment if you notice the most serious symptoms. Vision changes and swelling around the eyes could indicate you have cavernous sinus thrombosis (a blood clot), which needs immediate treatment with antibiotics through an IV and could require hospitalization. Neck stiffness could indicate the infection has spread to the brain, which can develop into meningitis or a brain abscess. These are both life-threatening conditions if they go untreated.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Sep 17
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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.
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