What is a sinusitis?

Sinusitis is inflammation of the sinus cavities surrounding your forehead, cheekbones and nose, leading to blockage.

Sinusitis is more commonly referred to as a sinus infection, but the presence of inflammation doesn’t necessarily indicate an actual infection.

Sinus infections affect more than 37 million people annually in the United States.

Common related conditions
Ear Infection Common Cold (Upper Respiratory Infection)

Types of sinusitis

Sinusitis can be classified as:

  • Acute — lasting less than 30 days
  • Subacute — lasting more than one month but less than three months
  • Chronic — lasting more than three months

Causes of sinusitis

Sinus infections are often caused by a cold or allergies. When sinus cavities are inflamed and mucus production is high, it’s common for fluid to build up in these cavities.

A sinus infection can also be caused by everyday irritants, such as nasal sprays, OTC medications or chemicals.

Risk factors for sinusitis

The main risk factor for a sinus infection is having a cold or hay fever, which leads to inflammation and blockage in the sinuses.

Risk for sinusitis is also higher in those with a deviated septum or narrow sinus structure, which allows fluid to more easily get trapped.

If you have a medical condition such as cystic fibrosis or weakened immune system, you also are more likely to develop a sinus infection.

Symptoms of sinusitis

There are many signs or symptoms of sinusitis. Most people do not have all symptoms at one time but may have a few at the same time.

The most common symptoms include:

  • Headache
  • Pain or pressure around the forehead, eyes, nose and cheeks
  • Nasal congestion
  • Thick, yellow/green-ish mucus coming from the nose or draining down the throat
  • Fever
  • Sore throat
  • Cough
  • Post nasal drip

Diagnosis of sinusitis

A sinus infection is diagnosed in a physical exam by a primary care doctor, who will look inside your nasal cavity and check for sinus pressure or tenderness by gently touching or feeling your face.

Your physician may order additional testing to confirm the diagnosis of a sinus infection, such as:

  • Nasal endoscopy — can help your doctor see the inside of the sinuses to diagnose your condition
  • Imaging studies — a computed tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) test can show any complications in the structure of the nose that is causing your sinusitis
  • Nasal and sinus cultures — if your condition is worsening, a culture can determine the cause of the infection
  • Allergy testing — if allergies are suspected as the cause of your condition, your doctor may order a skin allergy test

Treatments for sinusitis

Since sinusitis most often accompanies a cold which is a viral infection, there is no treatment available. Most cases clear on their own without any treatment.

At home treatment includes:

  • Decongestants — over-the-counter or prescription dependent on severity of symptoms 
  • Pain reliever such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen 
  • Saline nasal spray to clear out the nasal passages
  • Nasal corticosteroid spray — over-the-counter or prescription used to reduce inflammation

Antibiotics may be prescribed for bacterial sinus infections and immunotherapy may be used to treat sinus infections caused by allergens.

Recovery from sinusitis

Recovering from a sinus infection can a week or a little longer. If symptoms are still present after 10 days, there could be a bacterial infection in your sinus cavities resulting from the trapped mucus and fluid. If this happens – you will need antibiotic treatment for a bacterial sinus infection.

If your symptoms last longer than 12 weeks, it could be chronic sinusitis and you might need to see an ENT specialist (otolaryngologist).

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