A sinus infection, or sinusitis, is an inflammation of the sinuses caused by a bacterial infection, viruses or molds. It results in sinus congestion that makes it harder to breathe through your nose, and you may also have facial pressure and pain and a runny nose.
A common cold isn't the same as a sinus infection
A common cold is often mistaken for a sinus infection because many symptoms are the same.
Acute viral sinus infections are the most common type of sinusitis, lasting around a week. Acute bacterial sinus infections respond well to treatment with antibiotics but tend to last longer.
Chronic sinusitis lasts 12 weeks or longer and requires medical treatment.
Your primary care provider can help
Your primary care provider can determine if your congestion and other symptoms are due to a sinus infection, and then they will develop the best treatment plan for your case.
Causes and risk factors of a sinus infection
Unlike colds, sinus infections are not contagious. They are caused when bacteria or viruses inflame the tiny nasal tissues in your sinuses, which are the multiple air-filled pockets in the bones of your face. This inflammation blocks the normal self-cleaning function in the sinuses, which trap excess mucus. This leads to congestion and other symptoms in one or more of your sinuses.
People with weak immune systems are more likely to develop bacterial or fungal sinus infections.
In chronic cases of sinusitis, people with allergies can have an allergic fungal sinus infection in response to an allergen. Their nasal and sinus passages become swollen, congested and inflamed in an attempt to flush out allergens such as seasonal pollens, molds, dust mites and pet dander.
In addition, some people with asthma can develop a type of chronic sinusitis not caused by infection.
Several factors can increase your risk of getting a sinus infection:
- A previous cold.
- Seasonal allergies.
- Smoking and exposure to secondhand smoke.
- Structural problems within the sinuses, such as nasal polyps.
- A weakened immune system, or taking drugs that weaken the immune system.
Signs and symptoms of a sinus infection
Look for these common symptoms of a sinus infection:
- Bad breath
- Discolored nasal discharge, usually greenish in color
- Facial pressure and pain, typically under the eyes or at the bridge of your nose
- Frontal headaches
- Pain in the teeth
- Postnasal drip (when mucus drains down your throat)
- Runny and/or stuffy nose
- Sore throat
When to see your primary care provider for a sinus infection
Most sinus infections will go away on their own, but treatment can help alleviate your symptoms. You should see your provider as soon as possible if you have any common symptoms, plus any of the following:
- Fever longer than 3 to 4 days.
- Multiple sinus infections in the past year.
- Severe symptoms, such as severe headache or facial pain.
- Symptoms lasting more than a week without improvement.
- Symptoms that get worse after initially improving.
An untreated infection of the sinus cavities closest to the brain can be life-threatening, so seeking medical attention is very important.
If your child is younger than three months old and has a sinus infection and a fever of 100.4 F (38 C) or higher, seek immediate medical help.
Getting rid of a sinus infection
Customized treatment plans
Your primary care provider will determine if you have a sinus infection by performing a physical exam and evaluating your symptoms. Based on this, they will discuss a treatment plan for your unique case.
If you have a viral sinus infection, your provider will recommend treatment for your symptoms until the infection goes away.
If you have a bacterial sinus infection, you may or may not need antibiotics. In many cases antibiotics are not needed, and their side effects could cause further harm. Your provider may recommend that you wait and watch to see how your immune system reacts.
They may also recommend delayed prescribing, which is when the provider gives you a prescription for an antibiotic but you wait to fill it. This is common with children.
Steps you can take at home
In the meantime, your plan may include steps to take at home to feel better, such as:
- Applying a warm compress over the nose and forehead to help relieve sinus pressure.
- Breathing in steam from a bowl of hot water or while showering.
- Taking over-the-counter (OTC) medicines. Pain relievers and antihistamines to relieve symptoms.
- Using decongestant or saline nasal sprays.
- Using a neti pot or other nasal saline rinses. Fill a Neti pot with saline solution or warm water and flush out your nasal passages.
When antibiotics are called for
However, your provider may prescribe antibiotics depending on your case. Antibiotics are usually taken from 3 to 28 days, depending on the type of antibiotic. Your provider may also prescribe topical nasal corticosteroids to reduce inflammation.
If you have chronic allergic sinusitis, your treatment plan will address the underlying allergies as well as your sinusitis symptoms.
Specialists for special cases
In the case of nasal polyps and structural abnormalities, your treatment plan may include sinus surgery. Your provider would refer you to a specialist, who would discuss your options with you and modify your treatment plan to ensure the best outcome for your case.
Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Sinus Infection (Sinusitis) (https://www.cdc.gov/antibiotic-use/sinus-infection.html)
MedlinePlus: National Library of Medicine. Sinusitis (https://medlineplus.gov/sinusitis.html)
Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. Sinus Infections (https://www.aafa.org/sinusitis-sinus-infection/)