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Home > Patient & Family Resources > Health Library > Sinusitis
Sinus infections often follow a cold and cause pain and pressure in your head and face.
Sinusitis can be either acute (sudden) or chronic (long-term). With chronic sinusitis, the infection or inflammation does not completely go away for 12 weeks or more.
Sinusitis can be caused by three things:
The same viruses that cause the common cold cause most cases of sinusitis.
When the lining of the sinus cavities gets inflamed from a viral infection like a cold, it swells. This is viral sinusitis. The swelling can block the normal drainage of fluid from the sinuses into the nose and throat. If the fluid cannot drain and builds up over time, bacteria or fungi (plural of fungus) may start to grow in it. These bacterial or fungal infections can cause more swelling and pain. They are more likely to last longer, get worse with time, and become chronic.
Nasal allergies or other problems that block the nasal passages and allow fluid to build up in the sinuses can also lead to sinusitis.
The main symptoms of sinusitis are a runny or stuffy nose and pain and pressure in your head and face. You may also have a yellow or green drainage or drip from your nose or down the back of your throat (postnasal discharge). Where you feel the pain and tenderness depends on which sinus is affected.
Other common symptoms of sinusitis may include:
Your doctor can tell if you have sinusitis by asking questions about your past health and doing a physical exam. You probably won't need any other tests.
Viral sinus infections usually go away on their own within 10 to 14 days. Antibiotics don't work for viral infections. But there are some things you can do at home to help relieve your symptoms:
Home treatments may help drain mucus from the sinuses and prevent a more serious bacterial or fungal infection.
Bacterial infections can be treated with antibiotics. You will probably feel better in a few days, but some symptoms may last for several weeks. You may need to take the medicine for a longer time if you have chronic sinusitis.
If you have a fungal infection —which is not common—antibiotics won't clear up your sinusitis. With this type of infection, you may need treatment with antifungal medicines, steroid medicines, or surgery.
If you have taken antibiotics and other medicines for a long time but still have sinusitis symptoms, you may need surgery. You may also need surgery if the infection is likely to spread or if you have other problems, such as a growth (polyp) blocking the nasal passage.
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Sinusitis is most often the result of a viral infection that causes the mucous membrane lining the inside of the nose and the sinuses to become inflamed.
Colds usually trigger this process, but any factor that causes the mucous membrane to become inflamed may lead to sinusitis. Many people with nasal allergies (allergic rhinitis), for instance, are likely to have recurring or long-term (chronic) sinus infections. Nasal polyps, foreign objects (usually in children), structural problems in the nose such as a deviated septum, and other conditions can also block the nasal passages, increasing the risk of sinusitis.
Fungal infections may also cause sinusitis. This is especially true in people with impaired immune systems. Fungal sinusitis tends to be chronic and harder to treat than bacterial sinusitis.
Pain and pressure in the face along with a stuffy or runny nose are the main symptoms of sinusitis. You also may have a yellow or greenish discharge from your nose. Leaning forward or moving your head often increases facial pain and pressure.
The location of pain and tenderness may depend on which sinus is affected.
Other common symptoms of sinusitis include:
Acute (sudden) sinusitis is usually caused by a viral infection and often develops rapidly. It usually lasts for 4 weeks or less, and the symptoms often begin to clear up within a week without any treatment. Acute sinusitis caused by a bacterial infection is less likely to clear up on its own and may lead to chronic sinusitis or to complications in which the infection spreads beyond the sinuses. Nasal discharge that contains pus and gets worse after 5 days or persists for more than 10 days may be a sign of acute sinusitis caused by a bacterial infection.
Chronic (long-term) sinusitis is usually caused by a bacterial or fungal infection. These infections may be difficult to treat. If chronic sinusitis is not cured after trying two or more different antibiotics, you may want to talk with your doctor about surgery or allergy testing. Chronic sinusitis can lead to permanent changes in the mucous membranes that line the sinuses and may make you more prone to sinus infections.
Symptoms of sinusitis in children include coughing, nasal discharge that lasts more than 7 to 10 days, and complaints of headache and facial pain. Many children age 2 or older with chronic sinusitis may also have allergies and frequent ear infections.
Other conditions that have symptoms similar to sinusitis may include allergies, toothaches, and colds or other upper respiratory infections. But if you've had a cold that returns or gets worse after 7 days, you may have a sinus infection rather than a cold or other upper respiratory infection.
There are two types of sinusitis: acute (sudden onset) and chronic (long-term). Sinusitis often develops after a cold or viral infection. Most sinus infections improve on their own, but sometimes they develop into a bacterial infection—swelling, inflammation, and mucus production caused by the cold can lead to blockage in the nasal passages, which may encourage the growth of bacteria.
Acute sinusitis, whether viral or bacterial, may develop into chronic inflammation or infections that may last 12 weeks or longer. Chronic sinusitis can lead to permanent changes in the mucous membranes that line the sinuses. As a result of these changes, you may become prone to having more sinus infections that may become more difficult to treat.
Complications of sinusitis (such as meningitis or an infection of the facial bones called osteomyelitis) are rare. But when complications occur, they may be life-threatening and often require extensive medical or surgical treatment.
Your risk of sinusitis increases if you have recently had a cold, another viral or bacterial infection, or an upper respiratory tract infection. Also, chronic nasal allergies (allergic rhinitis) can lead to sinusitis.
Sometimes a deviated septum, broken nose, or growths such as nasal polyps can make you more susceptible to sinus infections. Problems with nasal structure can prevent the proper flow of mucus from the sinuses into the nose.
Other factors that increase your risk for getting sinus infections include having asthma, smoking, air pollution, overuse of decongestant sprays, cold weather, rapid air pressure changes (such as from flying or scuba diving), and swimming in contaminated water. Also, using continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) to treat sleep apnea may increase the risk of sinusitis.
Call your doctor if sinusitis does not improve after 2 days of home treatment and you have symptoms such as:
If you are not sure whether you have a cold or a sinus infection, see the topic Facial Problems, Noninjury.
Watchful waiting is appropriate if you have symptoms of an early sinus infection (such as pain and pressure in your head along with a stuffy or runny nose). An early sinus infection can often be treated at home if you are in good health. If you develop symptoms of a sinus infection, start home treatment, such as drinking lots of fluids and breathing steam from a warm shower, and use the guidelines above to decide whether you need to call a doctor.
Sinusitis may be diagnosed by any of the following health professionals:
Your doctor may refer you to an ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialist (also called an otolaryngologist) who can provide a more specialized examination of the nasal passages and upper throat. Referral to an ENT specialist may be beneficial for people in whom nasal polyps or other conditions causing blockage of the nasal cavity are suspected. Diagnosis and surgical treatment of chronic or complicated cases of sinusitis may be done by an ENT specialist.
An infectious disease specialist may be needed when sinusitis is caused by something unusual or when rare complications (such as an infection of the facial bones) occur. An allergist may be needed when allergies are suspected to be causing or contributing to sinus problems.
Diagnosis of sinusitis is usually based on your medical history and physical exam. A detailed history of the problem often can be of more value to the diagnosis than a physical exam. If the symptoms and physical findings are typical of sinusitis, further testing is usually not needed.
Additional tests may be done if:
Imaging tests may be used when symptoms of sinusitis persist or recur despite treatment, or to look for tumors or other growths when there is bleeding or bloody discharge from the nose. They include:
Less often, other tests may be done by an ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialist (also called an otolaryngologist) or by an allergist. These tests may include:
Sinusitis is treated with medicines and home treatment, such as applying moist heat to your face. The goals of treatment for sinusitis are to:
For more information, see Home Treatment and Medications.
At first while being treated for acute or chronic sinusitis, you may begin to feel better from antibiotics and home treatment, but sometimes your symptoms become worse and additional treatment may be needed.
Short-term (acute) sinusitis usually lasts less than 4 weeks. Up to two-thirds of people with acute sinusitis improve on their own without antibiotic treatment.footnote 1 Sinus infections are commonly caused by viral infections, which do not respond to antibiotics. Talking with your doctor will help you determine whether treatment with antibiotics is needed for your acute sinus infection.
Most people recover completely when treated with an antibiotic for acute sinusitis that is caused by a bacterial infection. The number of days you take antibiotics depends on the antibiotic and how bad the infection is. When you are prescribed an antibiotic, be sure to take it until it is gone, even if you feel better. Always take an antibiotic exactly as your doctor tells you, or the infection may not go away completely.
Sinusitis that lasts 12 weeks or longer is called chronic sinusitis. It is more difficult to treat and responds more slowly to antibiotics than acute sinusitis.
Antibiotic therapy is usually recommended for chronic sinusitis and may require a longer course of treatment. You may need to try more than one antibiotic. A corticosteroid nasal spray that reduces inflammation and swelling of the lining of the nasal passages may also be used during treatment.
In some people, a sinus infection may be caused by a fungus or a bacterium other than those normally associated with sinusitis. People who have an impaired immune system are at risk for these unusual infections. It also may include people who must use an oral or inhaled corticosteroid medicine (such as prednisone). Fungal sinusitis, which accounts for a significant number of chronic sinusitis cases, does not respond to antibiotic treatment and may need treatment with antifungal medicines, corticosteroids, or surgery.
Surgery may be required if you have taken antibiotics for an extended period of time but still have symptoms or when complications (such as infection of facial bones) are likely.
Sinusitis may be difficult to diagnose, because it often causes the same symptoms as a cold or other viral illness, especially in its early stages. It can be particularly difficult to identify sinusitis in children. If your child or you have frequent sinus infections, learn what signs to watch for, and begin home treatment immediately.
Symptoms of chronic sinusitis are often vague and may not respond well to treatment. It may take time and patience to find a successful treatment.
There are several ways you may reduce your chance of getting sinusitis:
Make sure your child gets all the recommended immunizations. Some immunizations, such as pneumococcal conjugate vaccine, may help prevent ear and sinus infections.
Home treatment may relieve symptoms of pain and pressure associated with short-term (acute) sinusitis. Home treatment may improve drainage of mucus from the sinuses and prevent the need for antibiotics.
If you have chronic sinusitis, you'll probably need to continue the above home treatment measures for a long period of time to keep your sinuses clear.
Medicines may be needed when symptoms of sinusitis are severe or do not improve. The goals of treatment with medicine are to:
Medicines are used and sometimes combined to treat sinusitis. Be safe with medicines. Read and follow all instructions on the label.
If you are taking antibiotics for a sinus infection, do not stop taking the antibiotics early just because you feel better. Take the entire course of antibiotics. The infection may not go away if you do not take all of the antibiotics prescribed by your doctor.
Antibiotic treatment is successful in most cases of short-term (acute) sinusitis when it is caused by bacteria. You should notice improvement within 3 to 4 days after you begin taking an antibiotic.
Chronic sinusitis may last 12 weeks or longer and usually requires 3 to 4 weeks of antibiotic treatment. Symptoms may persist or return despite adequate antibiotic treatment. A different antibiotic may be needed to treat the infection. Referral to an ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialist (also called an otolaryngologist) may be needed if symptoms of sinusitis do not go away despite long-term antibiotic treatment.
The goal of surgery is to make drainage of the sinuses better, usually by removing the blockage and draining the mucus. This may mean removing:
Surgery may be the only means of getting a badly blocked, infected sinus to drain properly. But surgery does not always completely eliminate sinusitis. Some people may need a second operation.
Surgery is most successful when used along with medicine and home treatment to prevent future sinusitis. A second surgery and future sinusitis may be avoided if antibiotics are taken to prevent reinfection.
Endoscopic surgery is preferred over traditional surgery for most cases of chronic sinusitis that require surgery. It is less invasive, less expensive, and has a lower rate of complications.
Very few people need surgery to treat sinusitis. But you may need surgery ifALL of these are true:
You also may need surgery if:
The extent of the blockage and other problems determine how extensive your surgery will need to be. Surgery may be limited to removal of infected tissue or small growths (polyps) inside the nose. More extensive surgery involves removing pieces of bone to create a wider opening to allow a sinus to drain.
Sinus surgery is always performed by an ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialist (also called an otolaryngologist).
Ah-See K (2015). Sinusitis (acute rhinosinusitis). BMJ Clinical Evidence. http://clinicalevidence.bmj.com/x/systematic-review/0511/overview.html. Accessed April 14, 2016.
Other Works Consulted
Chow AW, et al. (2012). IDSA clinical practice guideline for acute bacterial rhinosinusitis in children and adults. Clinical Infectious Diseases, 54(8): e72–e112.
Rosenfeld R, et al. (2015). Clinical practice guideline (updated): Adult sinusitis. Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery, 152(2S): S1–S39. Accessed June 16, 2015.
Rubin MA, et al. (2015). Sore throat, earache, and upper respiratory symptoms. In DL Kasper et al., eds., Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, 19th ed., vol. 1, pp. 225–235. New York: McGraw-Hill Education.
Current as ofMarch 27, 2018
Author: Healthwise StaffMedical Review: Patrice Burgess, MD, FAAFP - Family MedicineE. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal MedicineKathleen Romito, MD - Family MedicineMartin J. Gabica, MD - Family Medicine
Current as of:
March 27, 2018
Medical Review:Patrice Burgess, MD, FAAFP - Family Medicine & E. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal Medicine & Kathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine & Martin J. Gabica, MD - Family Medicine
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