Sinus Infection Relief

Find out how to spot sinus infection symptoms and ease the pain—or even stop your next sinus infection before it gets started

Expert Advice on Recognizing, Treating, and Avoiding Sinus Infections

Allergies and migraines can be mistaken for sinus infections.
Jeffrey Terrell, MD, specializes in treating sinus problems. He is an associate professor of otolaryngology at the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor, and director of the Michigan Sinus Center, in Livonia.

Q: Can it be dangerous to ignore sinus infections?

A: Its best to see your doctor if you think you have a sinus infection. Very, very rarely, sinus infections can spread to the tissues surrounding the sinuses, the eye, or the brain, with consequences including blindness, meningitis, and even death.

Q: What exactly are sinuses?

A: The sinuses are four paired sets of air-filled cavities in the bones of the head: the frontal sinuses, above the eyes; the maxillary sinuses, in the cheekbones; the ethmoid sinuses, between the eyes; and the sphenoid sinuses, which lie behind the nasal cavity and eyes. The sinuses are lined with mucus membranes and connect to the nasal cavity through tiny holes. When they are working properly, the sinuses help warm and humidify the air that passes through the nose. Along with the nasal cavity, they provide a kind of cushion of bone and tissue that protects the face and brain. They could even have some evolutionary significance; sinuses add resonance to the voice, which might have made it easier to attract a mate millions of years ago. But theres actually no real reason to have sinuses—these days we could survive quite well without them.

Q: What is sinusitis?

A: Sinusitis is an inflammation of the lining of the sinuses, which can obstruct the normal flow of mucus and air in and out of the tiny holes connecting them to the nasal cavity. Normally, tiny hairs called cilia "beat" mucus and other debris out of the sinuses into the nasal cavity, but inflammation can slow this action, allowing mucus to remain within the sinus and become a bacterial breeding ground. Symptoms can include nasal obstruction, yellow-green nasal discharge, pain in the face over the sinus area, cough, malaise, and mild headache.

Q: Why are some people more prone to sinusitis than others?

A: People with allergies, especially untreated allergies, are at greater risk of sinus infection because they often have inflammation of the tissue lining the nose, which can block sinus openings. Schoolteachers, parents of young children, and others who develop frequent colds also are at greater risk. About 20% of people with severe asthma have nasal polyps, which are soft, benign growths in the linings of the nasal cavity and sinuses. They may develop frequent sinusitis, although this is a type of inflammation that typically doesnt involve a bacterial infection. More rarely, underlying genetic disorders or immune system problems can make a person more vulnerable to sinus infection.

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Interview by: Anne Harding
Last Updated: January 15, 2009

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