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Health Information | 03/08/2021

Under Pressure: How to Avoid and Treat a Sinus Infection

By  Dr. Michael Light
Protecting yourself from a sinus infection is an essential part of maintaining respiratory health – particularly as we continue cold and flu season during the pandemic. Our respiratory system helps us breathe, allows our body to absorb oxygen for vital organ function, and cleans out waste gases such as carbon dioxide.

According to the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, 31 million Americans experience sinus infections every year. While a sinus infection may seem like a minor ailment, it can cause serious pain, infections, or even meningitis in severe cases if left untreated. Recognizing the causes, symptoms, and treatments for sinus infections can help you stay healthy and avoid potentially unnecessary trips to the doctor.

What is a sinus infection?

Sinusitis, commonly known as a sinus infection, is an inflammation or swelling of sinus tissue in your nose that leads to infection. While the inflammation or swelling of sinus tissue can be caused by multiple factors, some of the most common conditions that cause sinus infections include common colds, allergies, nasal polyps (which are small growths in the lining of the nose), certain bacteria, and a deviated septum, which is a shift in the nasal cavity. Additionally, having a compromised immune system may increase your risk of developing sinus infections.

There are different types of sinusitis that depend on the cause, severity of symptoms, and amount of time that they last. Acute sinusitis, the most common type of sinus infection, may last 2-4 weeks. Subacute sinusitis is also common but slightly more severe and can last 4 to 12 weeks. Both are usually caused by colds and other respiratory illnesses and typically resolve after proper treatment. Chronic sinusitis involves symptoms that last 12 weeks or longer and is usually caused by more serious issues such as bacterial infections and nasal polyps.

What are the symptoms, and how do you treat them?

Symptoms of acute and subacute sinusitis include:
  • Runny nose
  • Facial pain or pressure
  • Cough
  • Congestion
  • Loss of smell
  • Fever
  • Bad breath
  • Dental pain
  • Fatigue
In addition to the symptoms above, chronic sinusitis can include:
  • Severe congestion
  • Nasal obstruction or blockage
  • Pus or discolored postnasal drip
  • Headache
Finding the best treatment for your sinus infection depends on the severity and persistence of symptoms. Your doctor may recommend saline nasal washes and a nasal decongestant for cases of acute and subacute sinusitis, similar to what you would take for the common cold. For more severe and long-lasting cases of sinusitis, your doctor may prescribe an antibiotic.

For chronic sinusitis, warm compresses, saline nasal drops, and decongestant sprays can help prevent severe infections and alleviate recurring symptoms. In addition, reducing allergens that trigger your sinusitis can be effective in relieving symptoms. In cases of nasal blockage such as a deviated septum, surgery might be necessary to alleviate your symptoms.

While symptoms often subside with proper treatment, you should seek medical attention if you have a fever, nasal discharge, facial pain, or headaches that last longer than ten days, as this could be a sign of more severe health problems. In rare cases, if left untreated, chronic sinus infections can cause vision problems, brain inflammation, or serious bone and skin infections.

Can you prevent sinus infections?

Because sinus infections often occur after a viral respiratory infection such as the common cold, one of the most effective ways to prevent them is to protect yourself from illness. This can be as simple as practicing good personal hygiene, stress control, and making healthy lifestyle choices. You should also wash your hands frequently and avoid touching your mouth, nose, and eyes to prevent bacteria or viruses from reaching your sinuses. If you do develop a respiratory infection, allow yourself time to rest and recover to prevent a more serious infection from developing.

Sinus infections can also be caused by allergens that irritate the inside of your nose and cause the tissue to swell. If allergies are triggering your sinusitis, your primary care doctor or an allergist may be able to prescribe medication to reduce symptoms. An allergist can make recommendations on how to limit your contact with allergens.

Exposure to cigarette smoke can also increase your risk of developing a sinus infection, and smoking damages the protective elements of your respiratory system. Quitting smoking can be a crucial part of preventing both acute and chronic sinusitis.

Preserving your overall health is key to avoiding painful sinus infections . Your Atrius Health provider can work with you to manage your risk factors and symptoms to ensure you are preserving your respiratory health.

About The Author

Dr. Michael Light

Dr. Michael Light joined Atrius Health in 2020 and is an ABMS board-certified internist at our PMG Plymouth – Pine Hills practice. He received his medical degree from the University of New England College of Osteopathic Medicine in Biddeford, ME. Dr. Light completed both his internship and residency at the Naval Medical Center in Portsmouth, VA. His clinical interests include obesity, healthy weight loss techniques, PrEP HIV prevention, geriatrics, and teaching.

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