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Common Infections


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If you’ve been feeling stuffy or congested, waking up with a headache, and noticing swelling around your eyes, you may have sinusitis. Sinusitis can be inconvenient or even painful at times, but it’s usually not severe.

What Is Sinusitis?

Sinusitis is the medical term for inflammation (irritation and swelling) of the sinuses. It’s usually caused by infection.

sinusitis illustration

Our sinuses are the moist air spaces within the bones of the face around the nose. The frontal sinuses are located in the area near the eyebrows; the maxillary sinuses are located inside the cheekbones; the ethmoid sinuses are between the eyes; and the sphenoid sinuses sit behind the ethmoid sinuses.

When we’re healthy, our sinuses are filled with air, making our facial bones less dense and much lighter in weight. Sinuses also play a role in how our voices sound.

Infection with viruses or bacteria — or a combination of both — can cause sinusitis. Generally, someone with a cold also has inflammation of the sinuses. This is viral sinusitis. Allergies also can lead a person to develop sinusitis.

When the nasal congestion (stuffiness) associated with the common cold or allergies doesn’t allow the sinuses to drain properly, bacteria can become trapped inside the sinuses, leading to bacterial sinusitis.

Bacterial sinusitis tends to make someone feel sicker than viral sinusitis. A person with bacterial sinusitis usually will have more facial pain and swelling than someone with viral sinusitis, and might also develop a fever.

Signs and Symptoms

Some of the signs that someone may have bacterial sinusitis are:

  • a stuffy or runny nose with a daytime cough that lasts for 10 to 14 days or longer without improvement
  • continuous thick green mucus discharge from the nose (sometimes with post nasal drip)
  • persistent dull pain or swelling around the eyes
  • tenderness or pain in or around the cheekbones
  • a feeling of pressure in your head
  • a headache when you wake up in the morning or when bending over
  • bad breath, even after brushing your teeth
  • pain in the upper teeth
  • a fever greater than 102ºF (39ºC)

Some people also have dry coughs and find it hard to sleep. Others have upset stomachs or feel nauseous.

Although many of these symptoms are similar to those you can get from viral sinusitis or allergic rhinitis (inflammation of the nose and sinuses due to allergy), it’s a good idea to see your doctor just in case. Viral sinusitis and allergic rhinitis are more common, but bacterial sinusitis often needs to be treated with antibiotics, and you can only get these with a doctor’s prescription.

How Is It Treated?

If your doctor prescribes antibiotics for bacterial sinusitis, you may need to take them for as long as 3 weeks. Your doctor may also prescribe a decongestant for all forms of sinusitis. If your sinusitis is the result of allergies, your doctor may recommend that you take a daily antihistamine as well.

Can I Prevent Sinusitis?

You can lower your risk of getting sinusitis by making some simple changes in your home environment. Try using a humidifier during cold weather to stop dry, heated air from irritating your sinuses, which can make them more susceptible to infection. Clean the humidifier regularly because mold, which can trigger allergies in some people, forms easily in moist environments.

If you have allergies, make an extra effort to keep them under control because they can make a person more prone to developing a sinus infection.

Although sinusitis itself is not contagious, it is often preceded by a cold, which can be spread to family members and friends. The most effective way to prevent the spread of germs is to wash your hands frequently and thoroughly. Steer clear of used tissues, and try to stay out of the line of fire when someone sneezes.

What Can I Do to Feel Better?

If your doctor has prescribed antibiotics or any other medications, be sure to follow the directions carefully. Sinusitis can be difficult to get rid of otherwise and can easily return if it’s not fully treated the first time. Even if you feel better, it’s important to keep taking your antibiotics until you’ve finished the course prescribed by your doctor. This helps to kill all of the bacteria causing the infection.

Get plenty of rest and fluids so that your body’s immune system can work along with the antibiotics to fight the infection.

Taking ibuprofen or acetaminophen can help to relieve pain and inflammation. A cool-mist humidifier may soothe your sinuses. Warm compresses usually help with facial pain. Some doctors suggest saline (salt-based) nonprescription nose drops to keep your nasal passages moist.

The most important thing to remember about sinusitis is, even though chances are the type you have isn’t severe, it’s still important to see a doctor. If you do turn out to have a bacterial infection, prompt treatment can help prevent the infection from getting worse or spreading, and it will help you get better faster.

Reviewed by: Nicole A. Green, MD
Date reviewed: April 2013