Chances are, at some point in your life, you have miserably uttered the words, “I think I have a sinus infection,” as you reached for another tissue and struggled to breathe through your nose. More than 28 million adults are affected by sinus problems each year, and 11.7 million are diagnosed with sinusitis, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics.
When you have sinus problems, it’s often difficult to know when to see a doctor and how to prevent frequent illness. W. Andy Logan, MD, an ear, nose and throat (ENT) physician with Baptist Health Madisonville, says it’s not always easy to determine whether you have an infection or simply a cold. Here are some questions to consider:
- Is it really sinusitis?
Sinusitis refers to infection, inflammation or swelling of the nasal cavity and sinuses, a group of hollow spaces surrounding the nose and eyes. Sinusitis can be caused by viruses, bacteria or fungi, and may be considered acute (lasting up to four weeks), recurrent (repeated) or chronic (long-lasting). While headache and facial pain and pressure are symptoms of a sinus infection, those symptoms alone are rarely ever a sinus infection, Dr. Logan says.
Symptoms of sinusitis:
- Cloudy or colored nasal discharge
- Nasal blockage
- Facial pain or pressure
- May include fever, cough, fatigue, lack of or reduced sense of smell, dental pain and ear fullness
- So what do I do?
If you have had symptoms for less than 10 days, you probably have a virus. Treat symptoms with over-the-counter medications, including decongestants (ask your doctor first if you have high blood pressure or heart problems), antihistamines (if sneezing and watery drainage are predominant symptoms), and saline nasal spray, which can be used as often as needed to treat dryness or congestion. Avoid decongestant nose sprays like Afrin and Vicks, as they can be addicting.
If you have symptoms for more than 10 days, or if your symptoms seem to improve, then get significantly worse, you should see your doctor. If your sinusitis is due to a cold or other viral illness, antibiotics won’t make you better. If your sinus infection is caused by bacteria, antibiotics may help, but may not be necessary for you to get better. If symptoms occur repeatedly or persist for months, your doctor may refer you to a specialist for further evaluation.
- How can I keep from getting sinus infections?
If you find that you have frequent sinus problems or infections, the best way to prevent them is:
- Do your best to avoid viral illnesses – practice good hand-washing and try to avoid touching your face. Avoid unnecessary contact with people you know are sick.
- Don’t smoke and avoid secondhand smoke. Cigarette smoking is a chronic irritant of nasal passages and may trigger allergies.
- Allergy flare-ups can precipitate a sinus infection. Try to eliminate allergens like dust or mold from the home. If you have allergies, ask your doctor if you should take regular allergy medication or see a specialist.