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Sinus infections: A respiratory disease that potentially can become life-threatening

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sinus infection

Story at-a-glance -

  • Sinusitis is a common respiratory condition that causes inflammation in the sinuses inside your skull. Left untreated, symptoms could worsen to the point of being life-threatening
  • Sinusitis becomes chronic when symptoms last for at least 12 consecutive weeks. This generally affects 1% to 5% of the U.S. population, and is noted to significantly decrease quality of life
  • Learn how to manage the symptoms of sinusitis, as well as reduce your chances of getting this condition again in the future

The human skull is filled with four air-filled pockets called the paranasal sinuses. Each of them has an opening that connects to the nose. The main purpose of the sinus cavities is to produce mucus that keeps the nose moist, as well as to protect the nasal cavities from foreign contaminants.1

As MedicineNet.com explains, other functions of your sinuses include increasing voice resonance, acting as a buffer against facial trauma, insulating your eyes and nerves and humidifying and warming the air you breathe.2 We humans have four sinuses:3

Frontal sinus in the forehead

Maxillary sinus behind the cheeks

Ethmoid sinus between the eyes

Sphenoid sinus behind the ethmoid bone in the upper part of the nose between the eyes.4

Your sinuses are also prone to infection. When virus, bacteria or an allergen affects your sinuses, it can lead to inflammation, causing a condition known as sinusitis.

What is a sinus infection?

When pathogens invade your sinus cavities, you may get a sinus infection, also called sinusitis (or rhinosinusitis).  When the bacteria or viruses begin to spread, your immune system activates, filling your nose and cavities with mucous. When pathogens aren’t involved, allergies can also be a source of sinusitis.5

Sinusitis is a common respiratory disease in the United States. In 2017, statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) noted that around 12.5% of adults (or 30.8 million) were diagnosed with sinusitis.6

The two stages of a sinus infection

Sinusitis manifests in two stages: acute and chronic. Acute sinusitis is defined as a sinus inflammation that lasts less than four weeks. The most common cause of acute sinusitis is a viral infection, typically the cold virus. In other cases, a bacterium is the cause for inflammation. Typical symptoms include:7

Nasal congestion

Facial pain

Sneezing

Malaise (general feeling of unwellness) and fever (if the infection is more severe)

Sinusitis becomes chronic when symptoms last for at least 12 consecutive weeks. This generally affects 1% to 5% of the U.S. population, and is noted to significantly decrease quality of life. Symptoms to watch out for include:8

  • Facial pain
  • Reduced or total loss of ability to smell
  • Nasal drainage
  • Nasal obstruction

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Sinus infection symptoms you should not ignore

In acute sinusitis, one of the most common symptoms is the presence of cloudy or colored mucus draining from the nose, along with other indicators such as these listed by the American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery:9,10

A congested or blocked nose

Pain or pressure in the face or around the eyes

Drainage from the nose or back of the throat

Symptoms that don't improve after a week to 10 days

Long-lasting cold symptoms

In some cases, a sinus infection can lead to other health complications, such as cavernous sinus thrombosis. In this potentially fatal condition, a blood clot blocks the vein between the brain and eye sockets, and WebMD warns that you may develop more symptoms such as:11

  • High fever
  • Pain or numbness in the face
  • Drooping eyelids
  • Seizures
  • Severe headache
  • Fatigue
  • Swelling, redness or irritation in one or both eyes
  • Inability to move eye

The clot is a response by your body to prevent the infection from spreading to other parts of your body. Unfortunately, this has an unintended effect of increasing pressure in the brain, which can damage the organ.12

Another complication that is borne from sinusitis is meningitis,13 a condition marked by inflammation of the membranes covering the brain and spinal cord. This can be caused either by bacteria or by a virus.14 The Meningitis Research Foundation lists these telltale indicators of meningitis you need to be aware of:15

  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Pale skin
  • Confusion
  • Stiff neck
  • Vomiting
  • Limb pain
  • Seizures
  • Rashes
  • Aversion to bright lights

If you develop sinusitis and any of these symptoms appear, visit a doctor immediately for immediate treatment. Meningitis and cavernous sinus thrombosis are potentially fatal conditions that should not be ignored.

The main causes of a sinus infection

Sinusitis generally stems from fluid becoming trapped in your sinuses. This creates an ideal breeding ground where viruses and bacteria can multiply. In some cases, the invasion of allergens can cause sinusitis.16

Risk factors of sinusitis

There are several factors that determine your chances of getting sinusitis, such as the environment you’re living in and your anatomy. Mayo Clinic gives the following common examples that might increase your risk for a sinus infection:17

Asthma — Those who have asthma often have sinusitis as well, and is actually associated with worse asthma control. The connection regarding this phenomenon is not clear, however.18

Immune system problem — A condition that compromises your immune system, such as HIV/AIDS, can increase your risk of developing sinus infections.

Pollutants — Your working environment can play a role in the health of your sinuses. Cigarette smoke and other chemical odors can also irritate your sinuses.

Allergies — Exposure to allergens can trigger inflammation that specifically affects your sinuses.

Aspirin sensitivity — Your body may react negatively to aspirin, which can lead to sinusitis.

Biological abnormality — Having a deviated nasal septum or nasal polyps can increase your risk of sinusitis.

Is your sinus infection contagious?

If you’re wondering whether your sinus infection is contagious or not, the answer depends on the cause. There are many causes for a sinus infection, and not every one of them is contagious, such as the presence of allergens in your home. To determine whether your sinusitis is contagious or not, it’s best to have your symptoms diagnosed by a doctor. Either bacteria or a virus may cause your inflammation.19

The three types of sinus infection that can appear

Only three types of sinusitis can occur — viral, bacterial or allergy-related. In viral sinusitis, the symptoms resemble the common cold, such as a runny nose, sneezing, nasal congestion and coughing. Since viral diseases are not treatable with antibiotics, the best course of action is to simply rest and let your body fight off the infection until you get better. During this period, symptoms may be managed using simple home remedies.20

Bacterial sinusitis, on the other hand, produces a thick nasal discharge that may be green. Your nasal passages may also be blocked and mucus may be dripping to the back of your throat (postnasal drip). If you suspect that bacteria have triggered your symptoms, consult a doctor immediately.21

In the case of allergic sinusitis, symptoms you may experience are nasal congestion and swelling of the mucous membranes, as well as sneezing, itchy nose and postnasal drip. Find out what your common allergens are and remove them from your surroundings to reduce seasonal allergic sinusitis.22

Effective sinus infection treatment methods

Most cases of acute sinusitis do not require any treatment. However, if you think that your symptoms are starting to interfere with your quality of life, there are a variety of home remedies at your disposal. One convenient option is creating a homemade nasal irrigation solution, which uses only simple household ingredients. Harvard Health offers this recipe:23

Homemade Nasal Irrigation Solution

1. Mix 1/2 teaspoon of noniodized salt and 1/2 teaspoon of baking soda into 2 cups of filtered water (lukewarm).

2. Fill a small bulb syringe with the solution.

3. Lean over the bathroom sink and insert the tip of the syringe into one nostril, then gently squeeze. This will help prevent spillage over your clothes as the water will simply drip into the sink.

4. Repeat the procedure in the other nostril.

5. Rinse the syringe thoroughly after each use.

Other approaches you can try include:

Bromelain An enzyme found in the pineapple, bromelain is typically sold as a supplement that may help with inflammation.24 In a pilot study published in 2013, researchers noted that bromelain may indeed have a beneficial effect against chronic sinusitis. They noted that participants had better symptom control and improvement in quality of life using bromelain tablets.25

Spicy foods — According to the New York Sinus Center, spicy foods may help provide temporary relief from the symptoms of sinusitis. Chili peppers, onions, ginger and horseradish are viable selections in helping relieve the symptoms of sinusitis, even if only for a short while.26

Modify your home — It’s important that you make positive changes to your home to prevent allergies from constantly attacking your health. Make sure that you remove dust mites, as well as use an air filter. If pet dander is one main cause of your allergies, keeping your pet out of your bedroom can help with your sinusitis.27

Warm compress — A warm compress can help moisten the nasal tissues in your sinuses. Alternatively, breathing in steam from hot water can have the same effect. You may also follow up with cold compress to relieve sinus pain.28

Is surgery a viable option for sinusitis?

What if you’ve tried all possible methods and your sinusitis still returns? While rarely performed, surgery can be a possible option due to a number of reasons, mainly due to your anatomy. The main goal of surgery is to improve the drainage pathway of your sinuses by widening the pathways. WebMD explains the three types of surgery for sinusitis:29

Endoscopy — A nasal endoscope will be inserted into your nostril to view the sinuses that need treatment. Tools needed to remove blockages such as polyps and scar tissue will be inserted as well.

Balloon sinuplasty — If nothing needs to be removed from your sinuses, your doctor may opt for this procedure. A balloon will be inserted into the blocked passage and simply inflate it. This will help expand the pathway.

Open sinus surgery — This option is only suggested for more complicated cases of chronic sinusitis. Your doctor will need to make an incision into your skin so dead tissue can be removed from the affected sinus.30

Be aware that complete healing may take months, and you will need to return to your doctor regularly for post-surgery maintenance and checkups for any complications, such as bleeding and infection.31

While the success rate for sinus surgery is positive, I don’t consider it the finite solution for this condition, mainly because of the risks involved with its invasive nature. The Cleveland Clinic notes that sinus surgery is only necessary when other treatments fail. Therefore, I would still advise exhausting all natural options to help manage the symptoms.32

Essential oils for sinus infection

Another home remedy you may try is aromatherapy, which is the practice of using essential oils to help promote better health and well-being.33 Various oils are known for their anti-inflammatory properties, and trying this method before proceeding with more expensive treatments can save you plenty of time and money. The American Sinus Institute recommends the following essential oils for nasal congestion relief:34

Menthol — The cool effects of menthol can help improve breathing.

Peppermint — This oil has a similar cooling effect to menthol, and may also relieve sinus congestion.

LemonIt contains anti-inflammatory compounds that may help loosen up your sinuses.

FrankincenseThe strong scent released by frankincense can help relax the lungs and facilitate easier breathing.

EucalyptusThis essential oil is known around the world for its anti-inflammatory qualities, which may benefit those who have sinusitis.

Tea tree — Another oil known for its anti-inflammatory applications, tea tree oil is also known for being an effective antibacterial and antiviral solution.

CloveKnown for its strong scent and soothing properties, clove may help relieve sinusitis by eliminating the bacteria in your sinuses.

RosemaryThis essential oil may help relieve colds that are the cause of sinusitis.

Try these herbs for sinus infection

Herbs are another viable method for helping relieve sinusitis. A few options are available, and may be effective in your case. One example is andrographis paniculata, also known as green chiretta. Evidence shows that it has been used to help treat upper respiratory tract infections.35

In a 2007 German study, an herbal drug containing a mixture of nasturtium and horseradish root yielded positive results against acute sinusitis.36 However, I recommend using real herbs cited in this research to get the benefits.

Garden Collage Magazine notes that you can gain the benefits of these herbs by making a simple herbal tea. Aside from your chosen herb, you may also add a touch of ginger and a slice of lemon to help boost the potency of your beverage.37

How to prevent sinus infection from happening again

Preventing sinusitis is achievable, provided you’re conscious of your actions. One of the simplest things you can do is to practice good hygiene, such as washing your hands regularly with triclosan-free soap and water. This will help prevent microbes from going into your sinuses whenever you touch your face. Another easy thing you can follow is simply avoiding people infected with the common cold.38 Harvard Health gives these other helpful tips you can implement:39

Bathe your nasal passages regularly — Try running water into the nasal passages to help expel mucus and moisten the sinus membranes.

Drink water every day — Keep hydrated throughout the day to keep the mucous membranes moist.

Inhale steam — Inhaling the steam emanating from a hot shower, or even just steam from a container with boiled water, can help keep your sinuses in top shape.

Avoid dry environments — Using a humidifier with your preferred essential oil can keep your sinuses working well. It may be handy to have one device at work and another device at home.

Sleep with your head elevated — Prop up your head at a slight angle when sleeping. Mucus collects in your sinuses at night if your head is at a declined angle.

Gently blow your nose — When blowing your nose, do it gently to prevent irritating your nasal passages and returning bacteria-filled mucus to your sinuses.

Avoid taking antihistamines — Taking antihistamines can make your mucus thick and hard all the time, making it hard to drain.

Avoid the use of decongestants — Relying on decongestants, such as tablets that contain pseudoephedrine, can increase your chances of drug dependency, and actually increase swelling when the medication wears off. Other similar drugs can cause various side effects as well, such as jitters and high blood pressure.

Healthy foods for sinus infection

As most people know, whole healthy foods can help manage diseases better thanks to the vitamins, minerals and other active compounds that all work together, and this is no different in the case of sinusitis. There are various foods available to help you get relief from the pain you’re experiencing. But before you get to eating healthy, here are foods to avoid if you have sinusitis or want to prevent it, as well as other chronic conditions:

Processed sugar — Consuming sugar, especially in large amounts, can promote inflammation by increasing the presence of C reactive protein (CRP), a known inflammatory marker.40

Monosodium glutamate (MSG) — In one study, mice injected with MSG developed inflammation, obesity and diabetes.41

Omega-6 fatty acids — Research indicates that increased intake of omega-6 fatty acids from various food sources can lead to inflammation, especially when they number more than the omega-3 fatty acids in your body.42

Refined grains — Intake of refined grains has been linked with inflammation, according to a study published in the Journal of Nutrition.43

Once you’ve removed those foods from your pantry, adding the following foods can help stave off inflammation:

Wild-caught fish — Fish caught in the wild are rich in healthy fats that provide bodywide benefits, including fighting inflammation.44 Best choices include Alaskan salmon and sardines.45

Tart cherries — These small fruits are rich in polyphenols that have been found to help reduce inflammation and oxidative stress, according to a study published in Antioxidants.46

TurmericThis popular cooking spice contains curcumin, a compound that has been shown to have potent anti-inflammatory activity.47

Avocado — Rich in healthy fats, avocados have been shown to promote healthy blood lipid profiles, as well as increase the bioavailability of other nutrients consumed from other foods.48

Beans — The inclusion of healthy beans, such as black beans, can help reduce inflammation and the risk of other health complications. This food contains fiber, protein and antioxidants that contribute to well-being.49

However, remember: Beans also contain lectins, which are sugar-binding proteins that attach to your cell membranes and can trigger a host of health problems. To reduce the lectins in beans, it’s important to cook them properly. Read my article “Limit the Lectins” for more information.

Green teaThis beverage may be one of the healthiest ones you can drink. Green tea is rich in polyphenols that may help fight inflammation, according to research published in the Journal of Advanced Pharmaceutical Technology & Research.50

Leafy greens — Vegetables such as kale contain generous amounts of carotenoids, lutein and beta-carotene that may help reduce the risk of oxidative stress.51 Other healthy choices related to fighting inflammation include spinach52 and watercress.53

Ginger — One of the most studied plants, ginger is extensively noted for its anti-inflammatory properties in various publications.54,55,56

Sinus infection versus colds: What’s the difference?

Many people often confuse sinusitis with colds, and with good reason. The symptoms of the two diseases are very similar and since they are isolated to one location (your nose), the names are often interchanged during discussions. However, there are key dissimilarities to help you differentiate — in colds, you may develop a runny nose, but you will get better after a few days. In the case of sinusitis, symptoms can last for more than a week.57

If you’ve been having nasal problems for more than a week, you most likely have sinusitis. Visit a doctor right away to help get relief from your symptoms and to determine the cause of your inflammation. Colds are caused by a virus. In sinusitis, viruses may also be the culprit, but it also may be caused by allergies or bacteria.58

If your sinuses are inflamed, get help right away

Sinus infections should be dealt with immediately. Leaving your sinuses untreated can lead to more severe health complications that may lead to death. If you believe that your sinuses are inflamed due to whatever reason, visit a doctor immediately. Determining the cause of your sinusitis can help you choose the best treatment plans to safeguard your health in the long run.

Frequently asked questions about sinus infections

Q: Is it OK to go on flight with a sinus infection?

A: Doctors recommend that you avoid flying when you have a sinus infection, as the changes in cabin pressure can exacerbate your symptoms.59

Q: How can you get rid of a sinus infection without antibiotics?

A: If you have bacterial sinusitis, you may use the natural home remedies listed in this article to help relieve symptoms instead of relying on antibiotics.

Q: What does a sinus infection feel like?

A: A sinus infection can cause facial pain, which may eventually lead to a headache. Your sinus areas may also feel swollen and tender when touched.60

Q: Why do I keep getting sinus infections?

A: You may have chronic sinusitis, which can be caused by nasal polyps, a deviated nasal septum, seasonal or environmental allergies or a weakened immune system.61

Q: How long do sinus infections last?

A: Sinusitis usually goes away on its own, but it’s possible that symptoms can persist for more than a week — or even years. If that’s the case, seek immediate help from your doctor to see how you might alleviate your condition and possibly cure it.62

Q: How do you deal with a sinus infection while pregnant?

A: If you’re pregnant and you’re dealing with a bout of sinusitis, avoid medications as they may risk your baby’s health. Instead, try relieving the symptoms through home remedies, as well as drinking plenty of water and using a humidifier.63

Q: Can sinus infections cause dizziness?

A: Yes. The buildup of pressure in your sinus passages can negatively affect the functions of your inner ear, which is responsible for maintaining balance.64

Q: Can sinus infections cause tooth pain?

A: Yes, most notably in the upper teeth since they are closer to the sinuses.65

Q: Can sinus infections cause fever?

A: Yes, a fever is one possible symptom of a sinus infection, particularly if it’s caused by a bacterial pathogen.66

Q: Will a sinus infection go away on its own?

A: According to the Mayo Clinic, 70 percent of sinus infections go away on their own without the need for antibiotics.67

+ Sources and References