The pain and pressure of a sinus infection is nothing to sneeze at. Here’s how to know if you have one and how to cope.
You have a cold, and just when you think you’re getting better, it gets worse. You have pain and pressure in your face, and it’s hard to breathe out of your nose. You might have a sinus infection, also called sinusitis, which affects 1 in 8 adults every year.
Here’s what you need to know about sinusitis and when you should see a doctor.
1. Sinusitis is not a regular cold — but colds can cause sinusitis
Your sinuses, which are hollow spaces in the bones around your nose, are lined with mucus that traps bacteria, dust and allergens and drains out through your nose.
When your sinuses become inflamed due to a cold, mucus can’t drain, so it builds up and can lead to sinusitis, which can be viral or bacterial.
2. Sinusitis can cause a range of symptoms
According to Elisabeth Ference, MD, an otolaryngologist at Keck Medicine of USC and an assistant professor of clinical otolaryngology at the Keck School of Medicine of USC, symptoms of sinusitis can include:
- Nasal drainage
- Postnasal drainage (when mucus drips down the back of your throat)
- Nasal obstruction
- Facial pain and tenderness, which is especially worse when you bend over
- Upper tooth pain
- Bad breath
- Loss of smell or taste
- Ear pressure
3. Sinus infection symptoms follow a different path than colds
You may be able to tell if you have a sinus infection, depending on how your symptoms progress.
“Colds, which are due to viral illnesses, usually improve without medication in 7 to 10 days,” Ference says.
You should suspect sinusitis if you’ve had symptoms for longer than that.
Ference adds that you might experience the following if you have bacterial sinusitis:
- Fever greater than 102°F
- Nasal drainage or postnasal drainage that looks very discolored or thick, like pus
- A “double worsening,” meaning that you start to get better but then feel worse again
4. Sinusitis can be chronic
An acute sinus infection is the type that follows a cold and may last for less than 4 weeks. It is often due to a bacterial infection, Ference explains.
“Chronic sinusitis, on the other hand, lasts for much longer, more than 12 weeks (or even months or years),” she says. “Chronic sinusitis can be due to bacterial or fungal infections, or due to inflammation from abnormalities in the immune system or from allergies.”
Nasal polyps or structural problems in the nasal passages can also lead to a chronic infection.
5. Sinus infections can be contagious
Unfortunately, others may be able to catch your sinus infection, depending on what’s behind it.
“Bacterial sinusitis can be contagious, as are sinus infections caused by viruses,” Ference says. “But, chronic sinusitis is often not contagious.”
Throwing away dirty tissues after use and washing your hands can help prevent spreading sinusitis.
6. Sinusitis symptoms can be treated at home
The good news is there are home remedies and over-the-counter treatments that can help in relieving sinus pressure when it starts.
“If you have symptoms for fewer than 10 days, you can try saline irrigations, over-the-counter steroid nasal sprays, mucolytics (which thin mucus) and oral or topical decongestants,” Ference says.
Decongestant medications shouldn’t be used for more than 3 days, she warns, because they can cause rebound congestion when you stop using them.
You can also try putting a warm, damp washcloth on your face or inhaling steam over the sink or in the shower several times a day to help relieve inflammation in your sinuses.
7. A sinus rinse can help relieve your symptoms — but it should be done properly
If you try a sinus rinse with a bulb syringe, saline rinse bottle or neti pot, use a prepared salt packet or homemade saline solution instead of plain water. If making it yourself, use only distilled or boiled and cooled water to make sure organisms in tap water don’t further contribute to sinus problems.
According to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, you can mix 3 teaspoons of pickling or canning salt that contains no iodide, anti-caking agents or preservatives with 1 teaspoon of baking soda, then add 1 teaspoon of that mixture to 1 cup of lukewarm sterile water. For children, use a half-teaspoon with 4 ounces of water.
Also, make sure to clean your nasal irrigation system afterward.
8. Sinusitis may require a call to your doctor
Although many sinus infections go away on their own, you may need your doctor’s guidance for how to treat one.
Ference recommends seeing a doctor if:
- You have severe symptoms from the beginning
- You start to get better but then feel worse again
- Have symptoms that last more than 10 days
9. Sinusitis may or may not need antibiotics
You might not require antibiotics; however, for acute sinusitis due to a bacterial infection, antibiotics can help decrease the length of symptoms, Ference says.
Talk to your doctor to see whether or not you should be treated with antibiotics.
10. You can lessen your chances of sinusitis
Prevention for a sinus infection often starts with preventing the cold that might lead to it: Wash your hands, avoid people who are sick and keep your body in good shape by eating healthy.
You can also help keep sinuses moist by using a humidifier and drinking plenty of fluids. In addition, control allergies and avoid smoking and secondhand smoke.