Sinusitis is a condition that can affect people throughout the year, but with winter coming on and weather changes in the air, a lot more people are going to be trying to find out how to beat a sinus infection. It’s a common occurrence, with more than 24 million cases in the United States annually.
What is a Sinus Infection?
The sinus cavities—behind the forehead, nasal bones, cheeks, and eyes—are empty spaces in the skull. In a healthy person, these cavities are filled only with air and there is no mucus or other objects in them. Also known as rhinosinusitis, a sinus infection is an inflammation of these cavities in which the air ways are blocked. Mucus and infection can’t find a way out through the inflammation, causing a number of irritations and symptoms.
Causes of a Sinus Infection
Sinusitis can be caused by bacteria, a fungus, or a virus, as well as by situations in which the sinus cavities are blocked. Small hair in the sinuses, called cilia, work to move mucus out of the sinuses, and if these aren’t working due to medical conditions (or the temporary “freezing” caused by smoking and other pollutants), then mucus will back up in the sinuses.
A long or particularly bad cold as well as changes in altitude can make people more vulnerable to sinusitis.
Colds and allergies may also create so much mucus that it the sinus cavities are overwhelmed and cannot release it fast enough.
Several issues can also block the opening of the sinus cavities and passages to increase the likelihood of sinusitis:
- Deviated nasal septum
- Nasal bone spur
- Nasal polyps
Acute sinusitis, caused by bacteria, occurs when symptoms present for less than four weeks. Chronic sinusitis can be caused by bacteria or a fungus and occurs when symptoms are present for longer than three months. Chronic sinus infections may also be caused with an abnormality in the auditory tube that connects to the throat and sinuses. The heredity issue causes blockages within the cavities.
Some people are predisposed to sinus infections no matter what precautions they take in their lives, due to a weakened immune system, allergies, or a compromised nasal structure. Facial or nasal damage can also cause sinusitis in rare situations.
Although sinus infections can be caused by a virus, they cannot be spread from person to person and so are not contagious. The virus, by chance, enters the sinus cavities that are already vulnerable due to other factors.
People who have suffered through one or more bouts of sinusitis are more prone to develop it again in the future, as the inflammation of the sinus cavities increases the narrowing of the sinus passageways.
Symptoms of a Sinus Infection
Headaches and postnasal drip are some of the first indicators of an oncoming sinus infection. Other symptoms include:
- Nasal congestion and/or discharge
- Sore throat (caused by postnasal drip)
- Bad breath
- Dizziness or lightheadedness
- Facial tenderness
- Cloudy, discolored discharge
- Pressure in the head that worsens when the person bends over
If you have yellow or green mucus or there is blood present in addition to these symptoms, you are likely suffering from a bacterial sinus infection. A typical sinus infection left untreated can develop into secondary bacterial infections as the mucus builds up and stays in the sinus cavities. In these cases, only antibiotics can provide relief and clear up the sinusitis.
Your doctor has a number of options to diagnose a sinus infection, including:
- Clinical symptoms
- Nasal endoscopy
- CT scan
- Tissue sample
- Biopsy samples
- Sinusoscopy (in rare cases)
Treatment of Sinusitis
Increasing hydration will help thin the mucus. Some home remedies for sinus infections can include using over-the-counter decongestants and anti-inflammatory drugs, as well as mucolytics, which break up and dissolve thick mucus.
Rinse kits, such as the Neti-Pot, can also help irrigate the sinus cavities and cleanse mucus. It is imperative with nasal irrigation to use sterile, distilled water and to avoid the procedure if you have an earache or ear infection.
Steam or hot showers can also help to clear out the nasal passageways and thin mucus.
Over-the-counter nasal sprays can also provide symptom relief, but it is important to follow the directions and discontinue use when the product advises.
If there is a bacterial infection, consult your doctor for a prescription to antibiotics. Bacterial sinus infections are extremely unlikely to end on their own without medical assistance.
If you have a fever above 100.4 degrees or your symptoms have lasted more than ten days, set an appointment with your primary care doctor.
Ignoring or failing to treat these symptoms can also lead to ear infections and conjunctivitis (particularly in which mucus crusts the eyes) as the mucus spreads to find a way out of the sinus cavities. An untreated sinus infection can help other more serious complications and issues to develop, which could include the following:
- Brain abscesses
- Osteomyelitis (bone infection)
- Orbital cellulitis (inflammation of eye tissue)
Prevention of Sinus Infections
For people predisposed to sinus infections, corticosteroid nasal sprays may be prescribed for daily use to maintain clear airways and prevent mucus from building up in the sinus cavities. A common side effect of these sprays is nosebleeds.
Nasal irrigation can also work to guard against sinusitis.
People who suffer from chronic sinusitis due to nasal structure may need to undergo sinus surgery to find relief from sinus infections. This surgery would widen the passages to promote drainage of mucus. Surgery may also remove infected or damaged tissue that is causing sinus infections.
Other causes for surgery may include removing foreign objects from the nose, sinus cavity, or sinus passage, which is usually only a problem with children. Surgery may be necessary to remove nasal polyps or growths.
People who suffer from hay fever should take steps to treat their allergies at the first sign of irritation or inflammation, before mucus has had an opportunity to build up in the sinus cavities.