Everyone has heard of sinus infections, or sinusitis, but what exactly are they and how can they be treated? Every year more than 12% of all adults are diagnosed with chronic sinus infections in the United States; and acute sinusitis is the second most common infectious disease diagnosed by physicians.
So, what is sinusitis? Sinusitis is an inflammation of the tissues lining the sinuses, often impeding the flow of mucus and air inside them. This can result in pressure, discomfort, and the growth of germs, leading to infection. This is known as sinusitis.
The sinuses are the hollow cavities behind the facial bones that are filled with air and connected to the nasal passages. The sinuses share the same mucus lining as the nose, which produces mucus, keeping the passages moist and clear of dust, bacteria and other pollutants.
“In general, sinus infections can be referred to as acute or chronic,” says Armon Jadidian, M.D., one of the sinus and skull base surgery specialists at our practice.
“An acute infection is generally short-lived, comes on quickly, and typically resolves quickly with treatment. On the other hand, you have chronic sinusitis which is a more prolonged long-term smouldering infection.”
What Causes Sinus Infections?
The most common cause of acute sinusitis is a cold or flu. Pollutants, allergens and a tooth or fungal infection can also sometimes lead to a sinus infection.
Chronic sinus infections have been linked to:
- Small growths inside the nose (known as nasal polyps)
- A deviated septum, or a shift in the nasal cavity
- Fungi, allergies and related conditions, such as allergic rhinitis, hay fever and asthma
- Diseases that weaken the immune system
Signs and Symptoms of Sinus Infections
Typical symptoms associated with acute sinus infections include:
- Facial discomfort and pressure, including pain in the cheekbone or around the eyes
- A “stuffed up” nose
- Green or yellow nasal discharge
- Sore throat with post-nasal drip
- Reduced sense of smell
- Coughing and congestion
Other symptoms that may manifest include fever, fatigue, bad breath and toothache.
Patients with chronic sinusitis will experience similar symptoms to acute sinusitis, lasting longer and becoming more extreme. They may also experience:
- More severe pain later in the morning or when using eye glasses
- Persistant sore throat and halitosis (bad breath)
- Chronic toothache or heightened tooth sensitivity
- More intense facial pain during the day and increasing coughing at night
“A lot of times we’ll see patients that are under the understanding that they’re having some type of sinus infection,” says Dr. Jadidian. “Typically that term is used pretty broadly to mean a constellation of symptoms including: stuffy nose, pressure, pain, drainage down the back of the throat, sore throat and headaches.”
“One of the things we try to do is to tease out what’s really causing the symptoms, and many times it’s not necessarily an infection per se of the sinuses, but something else that’s happening, that’s producing these symptoms.”
How is a Sinus Infection Treated?
Before beginning any kind of medical treatment, it’s important to consult with an ENT specialist, to get the proper diagnosis and obtain the best treatment options for the particular case of sinusitis.
The primary goals in treating a sinus infection consist of alleviating the inflammation in the nasal cavities and sinuses, healing the infection, draining fluid from the sinuses, thus liberating their passageways.
In some cases, the sinus infection will improve without treatment. Various home remedies have demonstrated some effectiveness in relieving symptoms, including some over-the-counter medicines, such as:
- Steam breathing using a bowl of hot water containing a few drops of menthol or eucalyptus oil
- Salt water rinsing to free the nasal passages
- Sleeping with the head slightly lifted may decrease the pressure felt around the sinuses
- Pain relief medication to alleviate fever
- Gently placing a warm compress onto painful areas of the face
- Decongestant tablets and sprays
In cases where home remedies prove ineffective, a physician may prescribe antibiotics, particularly if a bacterial infection is detected.
Physicians may recommend allergy shots if allergens are a primary cause of the sinus infection. Immunotherapy injections can help diminish the body’s reaction to allergens and other pollutants.
In more extreme cases, an ear, nose and throat specialist might recommend endoscopic sinus surgery. This involves the surgeon exploring the sinus cavity with a small tube. Once the source of the blockage has been identified, the surgeon will clear away inflamed tissue, or may remove a polyp obstructing the nasal pathway, or alternatively may enlarge a tight sinus opening to allow better drainage.