What is sinusitis?

Sinusitis is a condition in which the lining of your sinuses becomes inflamed. Four hollow air spaces make up your sinuses. They are located in the bones behind your cheeks, jaw, and eyebrows. Your sinuses make mucus, a fluid that cleans bacteria and other particles out of the air you breathe. Tiny hairs called cilia remove mucus from your sinuses so it can drain out through your nose.

Acute sinusitis can last up to 4 weeks. Chronic sinusitis can last 4 to 12 weeks, or more.

Symptoms of sinusitis

The symptoms of sinusitis include:

  • pain or pressure in your cheeks, forehead, and nose, or between your eyes
  • headache
  • nasal congestion
  • fever
  • coughing, which may be worse at night
  • drainage in your throat
  • reduced sense of smell and taste
  • bad breath (called halitosis)
  • weakness or fatigue
  • toothache.


What causes sinusitis?

Swelling in your sinuses causes sinusitis. There are several reasons for this, including:

  • a cold
  • allergies
  • certain conditions, such as a deviated septum
  • changes in temperature or air pressure
  • growths called polyps. These can block your sinus passages.

When bacteria or a virus causes sinusitis, it’s called a sinus infection. This can occur after you’ve had a cold. The virus attacks the lining of your sinuses, causing it to swell and narrow. Your body responds by producing more mucus, but it gets blocked in your sinuses. This buildup is a good place for bacteria to grow.


How is sinusitis diagnosed?

Your doctor can diagnose sinusitis. They will do an exam and review your symptoms. They also may check your mucus or order an imaging test to confirm it.


Can sinusitis be prevented or avoided?

Sinusitis cannot be prevented. Certain factors increase your risk of sinusitis. These include:

  • having a cold
  • allergies
  • using decongestant nasal sprays too much
  • smoking
  • swimming or diving.


Sinusitis treatment

There are several treatment options for sinusitis. They vary depending on the cause of your condition.

You can use a saline nasal spray. This will clean out your nasal passages and help clear congestion. Your doctor may suggest a decongestant nasal spray to treat swelling. Do not use this for more than 3 days. It can worsen the swelling in your sinuses once you stop using the medicine.

A process called nasal irrigation can provide relief. A saline solution through a device called a neti pot (which looks like a small teapot with a long spout) can flush out your sinuses and help loosen thick mucus. It is important to use distilled or sterile water, or tap water that has been boiled for 3 to 5 minutes and cooled. Regular tap water is not safe to use because it has not been properly filtered or treated. Some tap water contains organisms that can cause serious infections in your nasal passages.

Decongestant medicines relieve sinus pain and pressure. In general, you should only use them short-term. Over-the-counter pain relievers can relieve pain and aches as well. Talk with your doctor before using an over-the-counter cold medicine. Some can make your symptoms worse or have other side effects.

Your doctor can prescribe allergy medicine to treat conditions caused by allergies. Severe cases caused by bacteria may require an antibiotic. Your doctor will instruct you to take this for 10 to 14 days. However, you often will start to feel better after taking it a few days. Make sure you finish all the medicine your doctor prescribes.

FDA Warning

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advises against the use of ear candles to treat sinusitis. Ear candling involves inserting a special candle in the ear. It is supposed to pull wax and debris out of your ear as it burns. Ear candles can cause serious injuries. There is no evidence to support their effectiveness.


Living with Sinusitis

Sinusitis often goes away with treatment. There are things you can do at home to help.

  • Get plenty of rest. Lying on your back can make your sinuses feel more blocked. Try lying on your side instead. This helps you breathe better. Or you can try propping yourself up with a pillow.
  • Drink plenty of fluids. Sipping hot liquids can help soothe your throat.
  • Apply heat. Try holding a warm, wet towel against your face. Or you can breathe in steam through a hot cloth or towel. This can relieve sinus pressure and help open your sinus passages.
  • Avoid alcohol. It can worsen the swelling in your sinuses.

Contact your doctor if you:

  • still have symptoms after 12 weeks
  • get the condition several times in one year.


Questions to ask your doctor

  • What medicine should I take to treat sinusitis?
  • Can I take cold medicine?
  • Will a humidifier help my sinusitis?
  • If I have sinusitis, can I still exercise or swim?