Nearly 35 million people experience a sinus infection at least one time every year. Sinuses are air filled cavities, or pockets, that are lined with a tissue that makes mucus. Our sinuses are located behind the eyebrows, cheekbones, forehead, and between the ears. The mucus membrane that lines the sinuses filters the air we breathe. Mucus helps remove dust, microbes, and other potentially hazardous debris. This provides protection from allergens and pollutants that can lead to illness. A sinus infection, also known as sinusitis, happens when sinus tissue (or the mucus membrane) becomes inflamed or swollen, producing a range of symptoms that can last for varying periods of time.
Causes & Types
Sinus infections occur when fluid accumulates in the sinuses, preventing them from filtering air effectively which allows germs to grow. The most common causes of a sinus infection are:
a viral infection of the upper respiratory tract (nose and throat), the common cold can be caused by various viruses and is typically harmless.
refers to an allergic reaction to specific substances (pollen, mold, grass, animal dander etc.) which produces inflammation of the mucus membrane.
these are small growths in the sinuses that are painless. They often develop due to chronic infection, allergies, or immune sensitivities and can impact sinus tissue.
the nasal septum is the thin wall that separates the left and right nostrils. When it is displaced, or off to one side, it is deviated which can impact airflow through the nasal passageways.
These conditions can all contribute to the inflammation of the sinuses, leading to an infection. Sinus infections can last for different period of time:
- Acute: shortest lasting type of sinusitis, lasting 2-4 weeks.
- Subacute: this type lasts 4-12 weeks.
- Chronic: symptoms last longer than 12 weeks.
Recurrent: experiencing a sinus infection several times a year.
Symptoms & Risk Factors
Common symptoms of a sinus infection include the following:
- Stuffy nose, congestion, runny nose
- Feeling facial pain, pressure, tenderness
- Nasal discharge, often a thick yellow or green substance
- Postnasal drip
- Cough, sore throat
- Ear pressure
- Teeth sensitivity or pain
- Loss of smell
There are a few factors that can increase a person’s risk for developing a sinus infection or exacerbate existing symptoms. This includes:
- Allergies: more than 50 million people experience allergies every year. Exposure to allergens can lead to sinus infections.
- Immune system disorders
- Viral infections like the common cold
For acute sinus infections which last for a shorter amount of time, people typically treat symptoms with over the counter medications. This could include decongestants and saline nasal washes which help alleviate pressure and fluid accumulation in the sinuses. If symptoms are more severe and longer lasting, you should see a doctor for an evaluation. To diagnose a sinus infection, your healthcare provider will ask about your symptoms and conduct different tests. They will likely start with an initial physical exam of your sinuses which involves shining a light against the sinuses and tapping the sinuses. This allows them to check for polyps, inflammation, infections etc. Your doctor could prescribe antibiotics to treat infection which are typically taken for 10-14 days.
For chronic sinus infections, meaning symptoms have lasted longer than 12 weeks, your doctor could conduct more tests like:
- Nasal endoscopy: this involves using an endoscope, which is a thin flexible tube that has a camera and light attached to it. This allows your healthcare provider to examine your nasal passages and sinuses.
- Taking mucus cultures: if symptoms persist, your doctor would recommend taking mucus cultures so they can be evaluated. This makes it possible to identify what is causing the infection.
- Allergy tests: this is a useful way to identify if and what specific allergens are causing chronic infections.
There are also self-managed strategies that you can practice to alleviate symptoms including:
- Warm and moist air can help ease pressure. Using steam or a vaporizer are useful ways of inhaling steam.
- Drink lots of fluids to help thin mucus.
- Using over the counter decongestants or nasal sprays.
- If you have allergies, be sure to reduce your exposure to allergens as much as possible.
- Wash your hands as often as possible, especially during flu season.
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