What Is Sinusitis? Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment

It can stick around for longer than you might think.

Sweatpants, grimy hair, and crumpled tissues strewn around the bed. You know the sickness scene. 

When a nasty cold knocks you down, there's not much else you can do other than go to sleep and dream of your healthy days. But how do you know if it's a run-of-the-mill cold virus or a sinus infection?

Sinus infections are widespread, with 31 million people in the United States being affected annually, according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology.

Health spoke to healthcare providers to determine what exactly is a sinus infection. Here's what you need to know about sinus infections—including how long one typically lasts and what you can do to help the stuffiness and sinus pain go away quickly.

What Is a Sinus Infection?

A sinus infection is technically called sinusitis, and it's when your sinuses become inflamed, according to the National Library of Medicine. However, generally when people think they have a sinus infection, it is actually both the nose and sinuses that are affected. Rarely does an individual have just a sinus infection, per UpToDate, as it is almost always a condition known as rhinosinusitis.

Acute rhinosinusitis happens when both the lining of the sinus cavities and lining of the nasal cavities are swollen, Philip Chen, MD, an otolaryngologist with UT Health San Antonio, told Health. So if you're diagnosed with a sinus infection or sinusitis, it is likely rhinosinusitis since the terms are often used interchangeably.

Sinuses are "pockets in the face next to the nose that are typically full of air," Dr. Chen told Health. Dr. Chen said, "These pockets have a lining of mucosa that helps keep the sinus healthy."

The mucosa lining is what becomes inflamed when the sinuses are infected.

As for what causes a sinus infection, it's typically a condition that blocks the sinuses, like a common cold or allergies, Landon Duyka, MD, an otolaryngologist at Northwestern Medicine Lake Forest Hospital, told Health

The blockage ultimately "allows for an infection to develop and progress within the sinuses," explained Dr. Dukya.

Sinus Infection Symptoms

So if you've ever had a sinus infection, you know they feel pretty miserable. 

"The more common symptoms are nasal congestion, discolored mucous from the nose, post nasal drainage, facial pain, facial pressure, decreased smell and taste," explained Dr. Duyka. "Some patients also experience ear pain, upper tooth pain, sore throat, bad breath, and a cough."

However, this pain may be referred pain. Meaning, pain that comes from the sinuses, but is felt elsewhere in the body, such as in the ears.

But here's some quick advice: The whole thing about the color of your snot (like, if it's green or yellow) indicating whether you have a bacterial or viral infection is a myth, Donald Ford, MD, a family medicine physician at the Cleveland Clinic, told Health.

"The green-yellow color of mucus that can develop is a byproduct of our own white blood cells, which we use to fight any kind of infection, viral or bacterial. So, we can't tell the cause from the color of the mucus," noted Dr. Ford. "When the mucus is thick and dark, it usually suggests some mild dehydration. And you should increase fluid intake and use lots of saline spray to keep the mucus thin."

How Long Does a Sinus Infection Last?

Per the National Library of Medicine, there are three different types of sinusitis: Acute, chronic, and subacute sinusitis.

Essentially, acute sinusitis lasts less than four weeks, said Dr. FordIn comparison, chronic sinusitis lasts more than 12 weeks, and subacute sinusitis lasts one to three months. But those are just ballpark estimates. The length of illness depends on the person infected.

"Typically, acute sinusitis resolves in 10 days. But if not, then the possibility of a bacterial infection should be considered," noted Dr. Chen. "Getting one or two sinus infections a year is considered normal. More than four should prompt a visit to an ear, nose, and throat surgeon."

However, if you have chronic sinusitis, the illness can last up to three months. Also, environmental factors may affect your symptoms.

"Chronic sinusitis may have a number of causes, but the most common cause is allergies," said Dr. Ford. "Smoking causes the impaired function of the cilia, part of the nasal membranes that remove mucus, and can contribute to developing chronic sinusitis."

How To Treat and Prevent Acute Sinus Infections

If you suspect you have a sinus infection, try at-home remedies for sinus infections before you head to a healthcare provider. You can also treat your symptoms with over-the-counter (OTC) options, said Dr. Duyka.

"Start with conservative management, with nasal irrigation two to three times a day," said Dr. Duyka. "You can use nasal steroid sprays, such as Flonase; oral decongestants like Sudafed; and intranasal decongestants like Afrin for no more than three days."

However, just keep in mind that Sudafed may not be safe for individuals with certain medical conditions to take, per the National Library of Medicine. Conditions where it may be harmful to take Sudafed include glaucoma, heart disease, hyperthyroidism, those who are pregnant or breastfeeding, among other conditions.

Depending on your health history, it may be a good idea to check in with a healthcare provider before taking Sudafed.

If you are using nasal irrigation, it is crucial to use sterile water or solutions to irrigate. This is because tap water can contain low levels of potentially harmful organisms, such as bacteria or amoebas. These organisms can cause significant harm to you if they get into your nasal passages, per the Food and Drug Administration.

If those remedies don't clear things up or improve symptoms, you may have to resort to antibiotics. 

"For most patients, one should wait at least 10 days before starting antibiotics, and the doctor can help determine this," said Dr. Chen. "Usually, the sinusitis lasting less than 10 days is from a virus. And antibiotics do not work against viruses."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) lists signs and symptoms of that may indicate a more serious sinus infection. Symptoms include:

  • Severe headache or facial pain
  • Symptoms improve, but then come back
  • Symptoms have lasted for 10 days or more
  • Symptoms include a fever that has lasted for more than 3-4 days

As for prevention techniques, since viruses cause most sinus infections, proper sanitation is one of the best ways to prevent illness, per the National Library of Medicine.

"Like with all viruses, the most effective prevention is careful hand washing," said Dr. Ford.

And if you struggle with allergies, managing and treating those symptoms may also help prevent sinus infections. 

"Those with bad allergies might benefit from using nasal steroids and sinus irrigation techniques during symptomatic seasons," said Dr. Chen. "Allergy treatments may help these patients, as well."

What About Chronic Sinus Infections?

And for chronic sinusitis, sinus surgery may be an option, especially if other conservative measures have been unsuccessful. StatPearls explained chronic sinusitis is when an individual has experienced inflammation of the sinuses or nasal passages for more than 12 weeks.

"If the medications alone do not work, then sinus surgery may help to allow topical delivery of medications like topical steroids to the nasal and sinus lining," added Dr. Chen.

A Quick Review

So, while sinus infections may be annoying and painful, a couple a year can be average. There are many at-home and OTC remedies for sinus infections.

But keep in mind: If your sinus infection lasts more than ten days, you are getting multiple infections a year, or you have other concerns, consider consulting a healthcare provider for advice.

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