What is a sinus infection (sinusitis)?

Have you ever had a stuffy nose that just won’t seem to go away? Maybe it starts with a cold, but the sinus pressure and congestion persist even after other cold symptoms have gone away. Maybe it comes along with seasonal allergies and won’t let up. It can be very frustrating to live with, not to mention the cost of tissues! The most likely culprit for this annoying pressure and congestion is sinusitis, or sinus infection, which causes the lining of the sinuses to become inflamed or infected. Sinusitis affects more than 35 million Americans each year, but the duration and severity of the symptoms can vary quite a bit, depending on the cause and possible complications. A sinus infection will often clear up on its own like the common cold, but sometimes it sticks around like an unwelcome guest refusing to take a hint.

What are the symptoms of a sinus infection?

When the sinuses become inflamed, they produce more mucus, which accumulates and causes sinus pressure, congestion, post-nasal drip, facial tenderness, headaches, and fatigue. In some cases, it can also cause fevers and a thick, yellow, foul-smelling nasal discharge

What causes sinusitis?

Sinusitis is usually caused by a virus and will typically go away on its own in 7 to 10 days with at-home care, rest, and fluids. Treatments to alleviate the symptoms include oral decongestants, nasal steroid sprays, over-the-counter pain medicine, and nasal saline irrigation. This type of sinusitis will not respond to antibiotics.

But sometimes...it’s a sinus infection that won’t go away

While a sinus infection is usually caused by a virus and your body fights it off on its own, causes of chronic sinusitis can sometimes be caused by bacteria. This type can last many weeks or even months if not treated with prescribed antibiotics. Often it will follow a cold or the flu and is often accompanied by a nasal discharge. If sinusitis symptoms persist for more than ten days or get worse after about a week, it is more likely caused by bacteria. Your healthcare provider can examine you to diagnose your illness and determine whether antibiotics are the correct treatment option.

What is chronic sinusitis?

Chronic sinusitis can last for months and is often related to allergies. Treatment can include corticosteroids, immunotherapy (allergy shots), or in some cases surgery. Allergy sufferers may also benefit from regular use of antihistamines to prevent sinusitis. Talk to your healthcare provider about the best allergy medication for your specific allergies and symptoms.

When to see a healthcare provider

If your sinus issues will not go away and symptoms persist without improvement for more than 10 days, it’s a good idea to seek professional medical help to determine if the sinus pressure is more than a simple virus. If your sinus infection is accompanied by a fever, extreme sinus pain, or a thick, yellow discharge, you should seek treatment right away.

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Written by Sarah Thebarge, Physician Assistant