Sinusitis or Sinus Infection: Symptoms, Causes and Treatment

Sinusitis, or inflammation of the sinuses, arises from several different causes. The sinuses require mucus to keep them lubricated. Under certain conditions, the mucus becomes a prime breeding ground for bacteria. Some cases are due to viral infections. Beyond medication, warm compresses and saline nasal sprays often provide relief.

Sinusitis is the inflammation of the sinuses. In fact, any medical condition with the “-itis” suffix involves inflammation of some type. The sinuses are hollow spaces located inside bones surrounding the eyes and nose.

There are four sets of sinuses, each named for the bones in which they exist:
  • Frontal, in the center of the forehead
  • Maxillary, near the cheekbones and upper jaw
  • Sphenoid, found near the optic nerve
  • Ethmoid, smaller pockets opening into the nasal cavity
Sinusitis Symptoms, Causes and Treatment
Because they are air pockets in the bone, sinuses lighten the overall weight of the skull. They also function as air filters, and moisten inhaled air. Finally, they play a part in the shape of the face.

Mucus is a constant presence in the sinuses. It has a vital function, protecting delicate tissue, moistening it to prevent cracking where germs may enter.  In healthy sinuses, cilia, which are delicate hair like cells, keep mucus moving for eventual exit through the nose. However, mucus also provides a great environment for the growth of infections. Infection causes inflammation, and leads to a diagnosis of sinusitis.

Sinuses blocked due to the accumulation of excess mucus become inflamed.  Sinusitis sometimes occurs as a bacterial infection that follows a virus. Viruses cause extra production of mucus. Bacteria grows, mucus production increases even more, and pain ensues. Symptoms of bacterial sinusitis also include stuffy nose, fever, headache, and the inability to smell things. Acute bacterial sinusitis may last up to four weeks

However, many cases are due to viral infections, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Acute viral sinusitis usually lasts for fewer than 4 weeks and often occurs following a cold or other upper respiratory virus

Other individuals suffer from chronic sinusitis, sometimes cause by allergic rhinitis or asthma. The condition is considered as chronic if it persists for a period exceeding four weeks. In cases of chronic sinusitis, other causes may exist, such as nasal polyps and tumors, and respiratory tract infections

Sinusitis can be a very painful condition. Many experience fever, fatigue, cough, chest congestion, and pain. There may be greenish or yellow mucus present. Another common symptom is postnasal drip, when mucus drips down the back of the throat, causing coughing. Bad breath is yet another common symptom.

Diagnosing sinusitis requires a medical exam to review symptoms and examine the face. In general, a doctor or other health professional looks for swelling and redness in the face. Applying pressure to assess discomfort is another diagnostic tool, as is tapping on the teeth, according to the American Academy of Otolaryngology. Beyond that, obtaining a correct diagnosis may require x-rays or other diagnostic imaging tests.

Depending upon the diagnosis, there are several treatments available for sinusitis. For bacterial sinusitis, antibiotics are warranted. Additionally, decongestants help thin secretions and unclog sinuses. Medications to relieve pain are commonly prescribed. Beyond prescriptions, several "home remedies" also help, such as warm compresses on the face, and saline nasal spray. Steam vaporizers also help. Cool mist vaporizers may help, but only those with new, clean, mold and bacteria free filters.

In a small percentage of cases, sinus surgery is the only way to relive sinusitis.

The information on this page is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. For more information about sinusitis, talk to your doctor or primary care provider.

Page last updated: August 1, 2023


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