Sinus Infection Symptoms and When to See A Doctor

Published May 3rd, 2022 by Chris Riley
Fact Checked by
Jacqueline Hensler
Medically Reviewed:
Erik Rivera

If you are experiencing sinus infection symptoms, it can be difficult to decide when to see your doctor as the symptoms can sometimes go away on their own.

However, sinus infections can be quite uncomfortable and even lead to more serious health problems if left untreated.

In this article, we will discuss the different types of sinus infections, their symptoms, and the various treatment options available.

We will also provide some tips on how to prevent sinus infections from occurring in the first place to help you avoid any unwanted trips to your doctor.

What is a sinus infection?

A sinus infection, also called sinusitis or rhinosinusitis, is a common condition caused by an inflammation of the sinuses and is also classified as an upper respiratory infection.

The sinuses near your nose and nasal cavity, also called paranasal sinuses, are air-filled cavities in the bones around your nose and can play a function in the flow of mucus from your nose through nasal passages.

sinus infection symptoms

A sinus infection can be caused by a virus, bacteria, or fungi while they can be irritated by allergies, nasal polyps, and even tooth infections that spread to them.

The function of these air-filled pockets is still debated and the answers range from providing a buffer zone for injuries or temperature changes from breathing through your nose to decreasing the weight of your skull.

What are the different kinds of sinus infections?

There are four different kinds of sinus infections according to the American Academy of Otolaryngology and they include:

Acute sinusitis

Acute sinusitis is the most common form and is defined as a sinus infection lasting no longer than four weeks.

Subacute sinusitis

Subacute sinusitis lasts between 4-12 weeks.

Chronic sinusitis

Chronic sinusitis is defined as sinus inflammation that lasts for more than 12 weeks.

Recurrent sinusitis

Recurrent sinusitis is sinusitis that comes back more than four times per year and may be caused by allergic reactions or anatomic problems in the sinuses.

What causes a sinus infection?

The sinuses are normally filled with air but when they become blocked and filled with fluid, usually mucus, germs (bacteria, viruses, and fungi) can grow and cause an infection. The blockage of the sinuses can be caused by:

  • Allergies such as seasonal allergies
  • Nasal polyps
  • A deviated septum
  • The common cold
  • Dust
  • Pollen
  • Smoking
  • Medications
  • Immune system deficiencies

What are the symptoms of a sinus infection?

The symptoms of a sinus infection can vary depending on which sinuses are affected but the most common symptoms include:

  • Nasal congestion
  • Runny nose
  • Postnasal drip
  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Nasal discharge that is usually thick yellow or green
  • Sinus headaches
  • Facial pressure that can cause pain and discomfort
  • Blocked or stuffy nose that can cause a reduced sense of smell or complete loss of smell
  • Fever
  • Bad breath, also known as halitosis
  • Tenderness to the touch of certain places on your face with the most pressure

Symptoms of sinus infections in children may be different and include:

  • Headaches
  • Ear pain
  • Thick discharge from the nose
  • Postnasal drip
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Bad breath
  • Tooth pain
  • Cold symptoms lasting longer than seven days
  • Fever

If you or your child are exhibiting severe or persistent symptoms, it’s important to see your doctor or your child's pediatrician as soon as possible as sinus infections can lead to serious complications if left untreated.

What are the treatment options for sinus infections?

The majority of sinus infections go away on their own but there are some treatments that can help reduce the symptoms and speed up recovery time. The most common treatment options include:

Over-the-counter medications

Common over-the-counter medications used to treat sinus infections include:

  • Decongestants: A nasal decongestant works by shrinking the swollen blood vessels in your nose which relieves congestion
  • Saline nasal sprays: A saline nasal spray helps to moisten the sinuses and reduce dryness and irritation
  • Oral or injected corticosteroids: Corticosteroids are anti-inflammatory medications that can help reduce sinus swelling
  • Antihistamines: When you take antihistamines, it helps dry excess mucus that comes with a sinus infection and can also help with itchiness and sneezing
  • Pain relievers: An over-the-counter pain medicine can help relieve sinus pressure and pain and help to reduce fevers too

Prescription medications

If your symptoms don’t improve after using over-the-counter medicines, your doctor may prescribe a stronger medication. These include:

  • Antibiotics: An antibiotic prescription is only prescribed if you have a bacterial sinus infection as they will not work against a viral sinus infection, fungal infection, or allergies
  • Oral corticosteroids: These are similar to the inhaled kind and can help reduce sinus swelling
  • Nasal corticosteroid sprays: A nasal corticosteroid spray is an anti-inflammatory medication that can be used to treat sinus blockage and congestion
  • Antifungal medication: In the rare case that you have a fungal sinus infection, your doctor will prescribe an antifungal medication

Nasal irrigation

Nasal irrigation is a sinus and nasal rinse that can be done with a neti pot, sinus rinse bottle, or nasal irrigator that provides quick relief as it helps to flush out the sinuses, reduce nasal blockages, and reduce congestion.

It uses a saline solution that thins out your mucus and washes away irritants and allergens.

Make sure to only use sterile water that has been boiled or run through a filter first for your irrigation solution.

Other treatment options

Drinking lots of water and staying hydrated will also help your body recover and keep your mucus thinner which may help prevent blockage.

Placing a warm compress on your sinuses can also help reduce pain and pressure. Inhaling warm steam from hot water or drinking hot drinks may also temporarily relieve sinus symptoms but be careful that the steam or liquid is not too hot.

If allergies are the cause of your sinusitis, you can also avoid any allergens that may irritate your sinuses.

Herbal treatments such as capsules or essential oils can also help to reduce sinus congestion although more study is needed to verify their benefits.

As with any new medicine or treatment, talk to your doctor first before trying them.

How long do sinus infections usually last?

The majority of sinus infections go away within one to two weeks but some may last for four weeks or longer.

If your symptoms last for more than four weeks, you may have chronic sinus infections which can last even longer than 12 weeks.

It is important to practice sinus hygiene and see your doctor if your symptoms persist as sinusitis can lead to serious complications such as spreading to the eyes, brain, or bones if left untreated.

When do I need to see my doctor about a sinus infection?

If your symptoms last for more than seven days without improvement or if you develop severe symptoms, it’s important to see your doctor as soon as possible.

You also need to see your doctor or seek medical attention if:

  • You have a fever that is higher than 102 degrees Fahrenheit
  • You have sinus pain that is getting worse
  • Your sinuses are swollen and tender to the touch causing extreme discomfort
  • You have a severe headache or facial pain

If you are uncertain about needing medical treatment, please consult with your doctor about the best treatment plan for you.

Can I prevent sinus infections?

There are some things you can do to help prevent sinus infections such as:

  • Washing your hands often, especially after you blow your nose, sneeze, or cough, and especially during cold and flu season
  • Avoiding close contact with people who are sick
  • Avoiding touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with your hands
  • Practicing sinus hygiene by using a neti pot or nasal irrigation to rinse your sinuses regularly
  • Quitting smoking and avoiding any secondhand cigarette smoke
  • Minimizing your exposure to environmental and workplace irritants such as dust, smoke, and fumes
  • If you have allergies, manage them effectively with medication or immunotherapy and by avoiding the allergens if possible
  • Using a humidifier when the air is dry
  • Drinking plenty of fluids to stay hydrated

These may help to prevent sinus infections and sinus issues or at least reduce the severity and duration of sinusitis if you do get sick.

Summary

Sinus infections are inflammation or swelling of the sinuses that can be caused by a viral infection, bacterial infection, fungal infection, or allergies.

The symptoms of a sinus infection include nasal congestion and blockage, thick yellow or green mucus drainage from the nose, facial pain and pressure, and fever although the symptoms can vary depending on if you are an adult or child. Most sinus infections go away within a week or two but if they are severe or persist then you need to see your doctor.

There are a wide array of treatment options ranging from over-the-counter medications and nasal irrigation to prescription medicines.

You can also help prevent sinus infections by practicing sinus hygiene and minimizing your exposure to environmental and workplace irritants among others.

Allergies are a common cause and managing them effectively is also key in preventing sinus infections.

If you have any more questions about sinus infections, their symptoms, or treatment options, please consult with your doctor or healthcare provider.

References and Sources:

NIH

American Academy of Otolaryngology

Otolaryngology & Head and Neck Surgery

  • Review of current guidelines related to the diagnosis and treatment of rhinosinusitis

https://journals.lww.com/co-otolaryngology/Abstract/2008/06000/Review_of_current_guidelines_related_to_the.10.aspx

 

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