What is Sinusitis?

Sinusitis, also called a sinus infection, is the inflammation of the membranes lining the sinus cavities around the nose. The condition can be caused by anything that disrupts the flow of air into the sinuses and the mucus that drains from the cavities. Sinus openings can get blocked when its tissue lining and the neighboring nasal passages become swollen. This could be triggered by a variety of factors including allergies, colds, cigarette smoke, nasal sprays, cocaine, and any other substance that irritates the tissue. Though less common, blockages can also be the result of growths or tumors. When the mucus is unable to drain, it creates an ideal environment for bacterial growth, which can lead to an infection.

What are the Symptoms of Sinusitis?

When a patient suffers from sinusitis, they may experience any or all of the following:

  • Pain or tenderness in the face, back of the eyes, forehead, and/or ears
  • Headache
  • Discolored nasal drainage
  • Fever
  • Runny nose
  • Postnasal drip
  • Itching
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Disrupted or lost sense of smell
  • Sore throat
  • Cough
  • Nasal pressure and/or congestion

Sinusitis Causes

Acute sinusitis, where the onset is relatively sudden and symptoms are temporary, is usually caused by a bacterial infection in the sinus cavities. Often, this infection begins with a common cold. The bacteria causes the lining of the sinuses to become inflamed and block the movement of natural mucous in the sinus cavities. Blockages tend to accelerate the growth of bacteria, which makes the infection worse.

When it comes to chronic sinusitis, which lasts for several months, or recurrent sinusitis, it is often an issue with the structure of the nasal passages which makes them more susceptible to blockages in the sinuses. Examples of this are:

  • Deformity of the septum
  • Nasal polyps (benign growths in the nasal passages)
  • Narrow sinus openings

People with seasonal allergies also tend to be more susceptible to sinusitis. This is because the nasal linings tend to become irritated and inflamed which increases the risk of infection.

Individuals with weakened immune systems, for example people with autoimmune diseases, HIV/AIDS or who use certain medications such as steroids, are also highly susceptible to sinusitis. This is because their bodies are less able to fight off infection, so something like a common cold can more easily develop into a serious infection of the sinuses.

How is Sinusitis Treated?

Sinusitis can be treated with medications, home remedies, or a combination of both. What works largely depends on if it is an acute infection (typically lasting less than four weeks) or chronic sinusitis (lasting 12 weeks or more).

The majority of acute cases will clear up without medical intervention. Patients can try a variety of home remedies to relieve symptoms including a neti pot, steam inhalation, warm compresses, saline rinses, nasal spray, ginger root tea, or apple cider vinegar. Some treatments will work better than others, so it may take a few tries to find the ideal solution. If the patient prefers, they can visit the doctor to receive antibiotics if it is a bacterial infection.

Chronic sinusitis will likely require prescription medications. The dosage and length of use is determined on severity, although treatment generally lasts longer than fore acute infections. Sometimes more than one antibiotic is needed. Fungal infections that refuse to clear up may require corticosteroids or surgery.

Sinusitis Prevention

Not every instance of sinusitis can be prevented, but those who suffer from recurrent or chronic episodes may be able to reduce future occurrences of the illness.

Firstly, any nasal congestion, whether caused by colds or allergies, should be treated promptly to reduce the risk of infection in the sinuses. Decongestant nasal sprays may help with this process but they shouldn’t be overused. Individuals with allergies might benefit from the use of antihistamines, particularly in high allergy seasons.

It’s also important to avoid irritation to the linings of the nose and sinuses where possible. Tobacco smoke is one of the most common irritants, so avoid this where possible.

Dry air can often cause the nasal and sinus linings to dry out and become irritated and inflamed. A humidifier can help to increase the moisture content in the air to prevent this.

Finally, drinking plenty of water can help to keep mucous found in the sinuses thin. This could help to reduce the risk of blockages which can lead to infection.

Last Reviewed:
September 14, 2016
Last Updated:
November 08, 2017