Most people have heard the term “sinus infection,” but many don’t understand what their sinuses are. Adults have four pairs of sinuses — air pockets within the facial bones that are lined with mucous membranes and connected to your nasal passages. The sinuses produce mucous that lubricates the nasal passages and traps environmental debris. When the sinuses become inflamed, mucous backs up. Bacterial, viral or fungal agents trapped in that mucous may begin to grow and thrive. When that happens, you’ve officially got a sinus infection — also known as sinusitis.
Signs and symptoms of a sinus infection
The best way to be certain that you’ve got a sinus infection is to head to your doctor’s office. Here are some indications you may have one and should book an appointment. The more of these symptoms you have, the more likely it is that you've got sinusitis.
- Headache around the sinuses and nose
- Facial tenderness
- Loss of sense of smell
- Bad breath
- Thick, yellow or green postnasal drainage
- Cough and sore throat
- Ear and tooth pain
- Stuffy nose
- Symptoms last at least a week and don’t respond to over-the-counter medications
How a sinus infection is diagnosed
First, your doctor examines your face and shines a light to peer into your nose. Often, that’s enough for a sinus infection diagnosis. Sometimes, doctors conduct a rhinoscopy to gain a clear understanding of what is happening in your sinuses. In this procedure, your doctor gently inserts a thin, tube-like instrument into your nasal passages to examine them. In the case of a chronic sinus infection (one that persists even after treatment), doctors may conduct allergy or blood tests or use a CT scan (a type of X-ray that shows soft tissues) for a more in-depth evaluation.
Treatment options for sinus infections
Sinus infections are usually treated with medications, including antibiotics, corticosteroid nasal sprays or corticosteroids. In many cases, a course of antibiotics treats the condition. In rare cases, antifungal medications or surgery may be required. As you wait for the medications to work, you can alleviate your symptoms by applying moist heat to your face to relieve pain and encourage drainage. Neti pots (containers you can buy at the drugstore to help you rinse your nasal passages with a soothing saltwater solution) can also provide relief.
Tips to prevent a sinus infection
As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. To reduce your risk of developing an unpleasant sinus infection, here are some tips to keep in mind:
- If you’re prone to allergies, talk to your doctor about a prescription antihistamine to control your symptoms. Allergies may become sinus infections.
- Use a humidifier to moisten the air you breathe.
- Use an indoor air purifier to capture irritants.
- Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, which are a rich source of antioxidants.
- Get a flu shot each year.
- Wash your hands! The common cold is a frequent cause of sinus infection.