Sinusitis is an inflammation, or swelling, of the tissue lining the sinuses. The sinuses are four paired cavities (spaces) in the head. They are connected by narrow channels. The sinuses make thin mucus that drains out of the channels of the nose. This drainage helps keep the nose clean and free of bacteria. Normally filled with air, the sinuses can get blocked and filled with fluid. When that happens, bacteria can grow and cause an infection (bacterial sinusitis).
This is also called rhinosinusitis, with “rhino” meaning “nose.” The nasal tissue is almost always swollen if sinus tissue is inflamed.
The paranasal sinuses are located in your head near your nose and eyes. They are named after the bones that provide their structure.
The biggest sinus cavity is the maxillary cavity, and it is one of the cavities that most often becomes infected.
There are different types of sinusitis:
A sinus infection can happen to anyone. However, people with nasal allergies, nasal polyps, asthma and abnormal nose structures are all more likely to get sinusitis. Smoking can also increase how often you get a sinus infection.
There are an estimated 31 million people in the United States with sinusitis.
It can be difficult to tell the difference between a cold, allergies, and a sinus infection. The common cold typically builds, peaks, and slowly disappears. It lasts a few days to a week. A cold can transform into a sinus infection. Nasal allergy is inflammation of the nose due to irritating particles (dust, pollen, and dander). Symptoms of a nasal allergy can include sneezing, itchy nose and eyes, congestion, runny nose, and post nasal drip (mucus in the throat). Sinusitis and allergy symptoms can happen at the same time as a common cold.
If you are fighting off a cold and develop symptoms of a sinus infection or nasal allergy, see your healthcare provider. You will be asked to describe your symptoms and medical history.
Sinusitis can be caused by a virus, bacteria, or fungus that swells and blocks the sinuses. A few specific causes include:
For infants and young children, spending time in day cares, using pacifiers or drinking bottles while lying down could increase the chances of getting sinusitis.
For adults, smoking increases the risks for sinus infections. If you smoke, you should stop. Smoking is harmful to you and to the people around you.
You can’t spread bacterial sinusitis, but you can spread viruses that lead to sinusitis. Remember to follow good hand washing practices, to avoid people if you are sick and to sneeze or cough into your elbow if you have to sneeze or cough.
Common signs and symptoms of sinusitis include:
Your healthcare provider will ask you a lot of questions in order to develop a detailed medical history and find out about your symptoms. They will also do a physical examination. During the exam, your care provider will check your ears, nose and throat for any swelling, draining or blockage. An endoscope (a small lighted/optical instrument) may be used to look inside the nose. In some cases, you might be referred to an ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist. If you needed an imaging exam, your provider would order a computed tomography (CT) scan.
Sinusitis is treated in several ways, each depending on how severe the case of sinusitis is.
A simple sinusitis infection is treated with:
If symptoms of sinusitis don't improve after 10 days, your doctor may prescribe:
Long-term (chronic) sinusitis may be treated by focusing on the underlying condition (typically allergies). This is usually treated with:
When sinusitis isn't controlled by one of the above treatments, a CT scan is used to take a better look at your sinuses. Depending on the results, surgery may be needed to correct structural problems in your sinuses. This is most likely to happen if you have polyps and/or a fungal infection.
Although it does not happen very often, untreated sinus infections can become life-threatening by causing meningitis or infecting the brain, eyes, or nearby bone. Meningitis is an infection of the membranes (meninges) that cover the brain and spinal cord.
Many sinus infections are caused by viruses, the ones that cause the common cold. These types of infections are not cured by antibiotics. Taking an antibiotic for a viral infection unnecessarily puts you at risk for side effects related to the antibiotic. In addition, the overuse of antibiotics can lead to antibiotic resistance, which may make future infections more difficult to treat.
You might find acupressure, acupuncture or facial massage helpful in reducing symptoms of sinusitis, including pressure and pain. They might also help you to relax. These treatments do not usually have unwanted side effects.
If you have a stuffy nose, trying to force yourself to blow your nose could make it worse. The best thing to do is to blow one side of your nose at a time gently into a tissue. You might want to first use some type of nasal rinse to loosen any material in your nose before blowing. Make sure you dispose of the tissue and then clean your hands with soap and water or an antimicrobial sanitizer.
Some of the home remedies used to treat sinus infections symptoms may help prevent sinusitis. These include rinsing your nose out with salt water and using medications that your provider might suggest, such as allergy medications or steroid nasal sprays.
You should avoid things you are allergic to, like dust, pollen or smoke, and try to avoid sick people. Wash your hands to reduce your chance of getting a cold or flu.
If you have indoor allergies it is recommended that you avoid triggers—animal dander and dust mites, for example—as well as take medications. Smoking is never recommended, but if you do smoke, strongly consider a program to help you quit. Smoke can also trigger allergies and prevent removal of mucous by the nose. No special diet is required, but drinking extra fluids helps to thin nasal secretions.
It is pretty easy to care for most sinus conditions on your own. However, if you continue to have symptoms that concern you or if your infections continue to happen, your primary care doctor might suggest you see a specialist. This could also happen if your CT scan shows something that does not look right.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Sinusitis, or swelling of the tissues of the sinus cavities, is a common condition with many causes, including viruses and bacteria, nasal polyps or allergies. Signs and symptoms may including facial pressure, fever and tiredness. You can treat symptoms at home by resting, taking over-the-counter products and increasing your fluid intake. Make sure you contact your healthcare provider if symptoms do not improve, if sinusitis happens often or if you have any symptom that worries you.
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This information is provided by the Cleveland Clinic and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or healthcare provider. Please consult your healthcare provider for advice about a specific medical condition. This document was last reviewed on: 06/04/2020