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Sinus Infection (Sinusitis)

Last Updated December 2023 | This article was created by editorial staff and reviewed by Kyle Bradford Jones, MD, FAAFP

What is a sinus infection?

A sinus infection is a condition in which the lining of your sinuses becomes inflamed. It is caused by bacteria or a virus. When your sinuses are inflamed or swollen for other reasons, it is called sinusitis.

Four hollow air spaces make up your sinuses. They’re 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. Mucus is removed from your sinuses by draining out your nose. But when your sinuses are swollen, the mucus has nowhere to go. It stays in your sinuses and become painful and uncomfortable.

There are four main types of sinus infections:

  • Acute infections last up to 4 weeks.
  • Subacute infections can last 4 to 12 weeks.
  • Chronic sinus infections last more than 12 weeks.
  • Recurrent sinus infections happen several times a year.

Symptoms of a sinus infection

The symptoms of a sinus infection include:

  • Pain or pressure in your cheeks, forehead, nose and ears, or between your eyes
  • Headache
  • Nasal congestion
  • Fever
  • Coughing, which may be worse at night
  • Drainage down the back of your throat
  • Reduced sense of smell and taste
  • Weakness or fatigue
  • Toothache
  • Bad breath (called halitosis)

How can I know if it is a sinus infection or COVID-19?

A sinus infection and COVID-19 do have similar symptoms, so you may be wondering if you have a sinus infection or COVID-19. The best way to tell the difference is to consult your family doctor. They will decide if you need tests for diagnosis.

What causes a sinus infection?

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.

Other causes for sinusitis can include:

  • Allergies
  • Certain conditions, such as a deviated septum
  • Growths called polyps that block your sinus passages

How a sinus infection diagnosed?

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

Can a sinus infection be prevented or avoided?

Sinus infections can’t be prevented. Certain factors increase your risk of getting an infection. These include:

  • Having a cold or allergies
  • Using decongestant nasal sprays too much
  • Smoking
  • Swimming or diving
  • A weak immune system or taking drugs that weaken the immune system

However, there are some things you can do to try to keep yourself healthy:

  • If you smoke, stop. Avoid second-hand smoke, if possible.
  • Wash your hands frequently.
  • Don’t touch your face, especially your mouth, nose, and eyes.
  • If possible, stay away from things you know will trigger your allergies.

Is a sinus infection contagious?

The simple answer is no, a sinus infection is not contagious. However, if a cold or virus caused your sinus infection, those are contagious.

Sinus infection treatment

There are several treatment options for sinusitis that is not caused by an infection. 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. Don’t 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’s important to use distilled or sterile water or tap water that has been boiled for 3 to 5 minutes and cooled. Regular tap water isn’t safe to use because it hasn’t been properly filtered or treated to be safe in the sinuses. 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 aches and fever as well. Talk with your doctor before using any over-the-counter cold medicine. Some can make your symptoms worse or have other side effects.

Your doctor can also prescribe allergy medicine to treat conditions caused by allergies.

Severe sinus infections caused by bacteria may require an antibiotic. Your doctor will instruct you to take this for 5 to 10 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.

Living with a sinus infection

A sinus infection often goes away even without treatment. There are things you can do at home to help yourself feel better.

  • 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 or the steam from a hot shower. 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:

  • Have a fever that lasts more than a 3-4 days
  • Still have symptoms after 10 days with no improvement
  • Symptoms that get worse after improving
  • Get sinus infections several times in one year

Questions to ask your doctor

  • What medicine should I take to treat a sinus infection?
  • Can I take cold medicine?
  • Will a humidifier help?
  • Is a sinus infection contagious?
  • If I have a sinus infection, can I still exercise or swim?


National Institutes of Health, MedlinePlus: Sinusitis

U.S. Food and Drug Administration: Is Rinsing Your Sinuses With Neti Pots Safe?

Centers for Disease Control: Antibiotic Prescribing and Use: Sinus Infection

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