Sinus infection is the swelling of the sinuses or the nasal passages. Sinuses are normally filled with air but when it gets blocked with fluid, germs can be produced and create an infection. There are four types of sinuses which are Frontal (in forehead), Maxillary (behind cheek bones), Ethmoid (between the eyes) and Sphenoid (behind the eyes). The sinus infection can be caused due to various factors;
- Common cold
- Swelling or growth inside the nose
- Small enlargement in the lining of the nose
- Shift in the nasal cavity
- Weak immune system
In children the most common factors are;
- Infection passed on from other children in schools or day care centers
- Use of pacifiers
- Lying on the back and drinking milk
- Inhaling smoke from the environment
A sinus infection can cause a headache or heaviness in eyes, nose, cheek portion or one side of the head. At times an individual having sinusitis can also have a cough, sore throat, nasal blockage and thick nasal discharge. Sinusitis is a common infection which can be classified as acute and chronic. Acute Sinusitis lasts for less than two months or occurs more than three times in a year. And when the infection occurs it will last for not more than 10 days. Chronic Sinusitis last for more than two months or occurs more than four times in a year. Chronic sinus will last for more than 20 days and keep recurring frequently.
A sinus infection can make it difficult to breathe because of the swelling and put a lot of pressure on the face of the affected person at times it is very painful. A sinus infection can be contagious at times depending on the cause of the infection.
Most of the sinus infections are caused by viruses and if that is the case it can be contagious. The person infected can pass on the virus to another person but not the infection. The other person may fall sick and may develop cold because of the virus but not necessary will also get a sinus infection.
The respiratory viruses that cause cold, flu and sinusitis are mostly spread through physical contact with the virus hence it’s very contagious. So if one touches any person infected with these respiratory viruses and then touches their own nose, eyes or mouth there are chances that he/she may get a cold or acute sinusitis. The respiratory viruses spread faster among children and older adults who are above the age of 65.
The most common viruses that cause this infection are rhinovirus and influenza virus A & B. If a person is infected by these viruses the infection is contagious days before developing sinusitis. It is normally contagious only for few days but at times it can be passed on for a week or more.
When the sinuses are filled with thick mucus, there can be the growth of bacteria causing infection. When the infection is caused by bacteria it will last for more than two weeks and this infection is not contagious.
How Does Sinusitis Spread?
Sinus virus spreads the same way as cold and flu. If a person breathes contaminated air or from his/her hands either while shaking hands or touching anything that an infected person has touched. The virus can pass from the hand to the mouth while eating. Therefore it is always important to wash hands with soap quite often in a day especially before and after eating.
If a person has come in contact with another person who is infected with sinusitis avoid shaking hands. Also avoid people who have got cold, cough or flu.
What are the symptoms of Sinusitis?
The symptoms of sinusitis depend on the sinuses that are affected and the type of sinus infection.
Acute Sinus infection symptoms:
- Pressure or pain near eyes, cheek bones, around the upper teeth
- Facial pain or pressure
- Nose congestion with thick discharge
- Running nose
- Bad breath
- Dental pain
Chronic Sinus infection symptoms:
The symptoms can be same as that of acute sinusitis but they may last for a longer duration and be more severe.
- Nasal congestion
- Pus formation in the nasal cavity
- Facial pain or pressure
- Running nose or discolored discharge
- Sore throat
- Bad breath
- Toothache or sensitivity
- Facial discomfort throughout the day followed by a cough in the night
How can one prevent spreading contagious sinusitis?
One can prevent the spreading of sinusitis caused by virus by taking the following steps;
- Hygienic practices – Always wash hands with soap or make use of hand sanitizers to disinfect the hands
- Avoid meeting people when one is suffering from respiratory viruses or infections
- Wear Masks to avoid spreading the virus while coughing. These masks are easily available in the pharmacy
- Vaccination – The pneumococcal and flu shot vaccine can help prevent from bacterial and sinus infection
How can one prevent non-contagious sinusitis?
There are certain measures one can take to prevent bacterial sinusitis which are as follows;
- Keep the home clean and well ventilated to avoid development of any bacteria
- Make use of nasal sprays, drops and nebulizer to keep the inside of the nose moist
- Clear the nasal passages with salt water which is either made at home or bought from the pharmacy and this will help better movement of the mucus and inflammation of the nasal passages
- Avoid smoking since this increases the chances of sinusitis and also avoid inhaling second-hand smoke
- Do an allergy test as this will help one understand the factors that are aggravating the sinusitis and it can be avoided in the future
- Use nasal sprays or oral decongestant medicines when one gets a cold to avoid nasal congestion
- When one has nose congestion, the nose must be blown gently and one at a time. Using lot of force while blowing the nose can worsen the sinusitis symptoms
Which Specialties of Doctors Treat Sinusitis?
Sinusitis is many times diagnosed by the general physician and in the case of children by the pediatrician.
But if the infection is chronic then the patient will have to take medical assistance from an ear, nose and throat specialist (ENT) and if the infection is due to an allergy then the patient may consult the allergist.
When should one take medical assistance for Sinusitis?
One must seek medical assistance when he/she is experiencing facial pain or pressure, nasal congestion, fever, headaches and bad breath. Those experiencing these symptoms for many days may be having a sinus infection and needs to be treated. If left untreated it can lead to many complications and sometimes be life threatening.
How is Sinusitis diagnosed?
For diagnosing a sinus infection the doctor will study the medical history of the patient, take notes of the symptoms of the illness and do a physical examination. It is important to understand if the symptoms are caused by a normal cold or flu or because of sinusitis.
- Sinusitis which is caused by any bacteria needs to be treated with antibiotics
- Sinusitis which is caused by virus need not require any antibiotics since it may lead to antibiotic resistance. This can be treated by simple home remedies and sufficient rest.
CT scan: Normally acute sinus infection does not require any testing. The CT scan will clearly show the nasal passages and the surrounding area and indicate accurately if there is any sinus infection. The scan will highlight the following;
- The air fluid in the sinuses
- Blockage in the sinuses
- Swelling of the sinuses
This test is recommended by doctors if they want to get a detailed condition of the sinus infection.
Ultrasound: This technique is reliable fast and even more reasonable option than a CT scan. But this may not be a preferred option by many doctors since it does not give a very detailed anatomy of the sinuses which may be necessary if any surgery is needed to treat the sinuses.
How is Sinusitis treated?
In most of the cases, the sinus infection is cured without any medications. However, many patients take certain home remedies to get some relief and faster healing. The self-treatment methods will also include some over the counter (OTC) medicines.
- Steam inhalation from a steamer or a bowl of hot water gives some temporary relief. This method has not been scientifically proved, but many people practice it when they have the symptoms of a sinus infection. Some also add some drops of menthol oil to the hot water.
- Nasal irrigation or sinus rinse is an option to keep the nose moist. In this method, a person rinses with salt water to clear the nasal passages.
- Placing a warm compress on the affected area like the head, eyes or cheek bone for relief from the pain and pressure.
- Always sleep by placing the head in a higher position with the help of pillows. This will help to decrease the pressure near the sinuses and also reduce the pain and discomfort.
- Painkillers can be taken for some relief from pain and fever
- Decongestant tablets and sprays are available in the pharmacy for reducing the inflammation of the sinuses and clearing the nose congestion. However, the patients must not use the sprays for more than a week as this can worsen the blockage.
If the patient finds no relief for several days after following these remedies and the symptoms continue to persist or worsen with time then he/she needs to seek a doctor’s guidance. The doctor will first analyze what are the causes of the infection and accordingly prescribe medication and tests if needed.