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Sinusitis: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment

What is sinusitis?

Sinusitis is a condition in which the sinuses become inflamed, interfering with normal sinus drainage. Swelling in the nasal passages creates blockage, and long-term sinus inflammation causes infection. There are around 35 million Americans affected by sinusitis each year.

Symptoms of sinusitis

The following symptoms may indicate sinusitis or a sinus infection:

  • Pain and tenderness in sinus areas: cheeks, forehead, between eyes
  • Headaches, especially in the morning
  • Runny nose or nasal congestion
  • Fever
  • Aching upper jaw
  • Feelings of exhaustion or weakness
  • Sore throat

What are sinuses?

The sinuses are spaces of air in the bones behind the face: small cavities found inside the cheek bones, behind the bridge of the nose, and just over and behind the eyes. These hollow cavities create mucus, which serves the purpose of removing bacteria and particles from inhaled air. The sinuses open into the nose and nasal passages, where the exchange of air and mucus takes place. Sinuses are connected to the nasal passages through a mucous membrane lining. When this mucous membrane lining becomes inflamed, the sinuses cannot drain properly. Mucus builds up, becoming  a breeding ground for bacteria and causing a sinus infection.

Types of sinusitis

There are three kinds of sinusitis. These include acute sinusitis, which generally lasts for around three weeks; chronic sinusitis, which generally lasts for around three to eight weeks, but can continue even longer; and recurrent sinusitis, which describes several attacks of acute sinusitis per year. Acute sinusitis is often mistaken for a cold, but it usually lasts longer than a cold and produces a wider range of symptoms.

Causes of sinusitis

Sinusitis is initially caused by any type of swelling in the sinuses. This is why people with allergies or asthma are more likely to suffer from chronic sinusitis and sinus infections. A cold is often a pre-cursor for sinusitis as well.

Sinusitis can also be caused by using too many decongestant nasal sprays, which can cause a rebound effect leading to more nasal congestion. Using tobacco and swimming are frequent causes of swelling in the sinuses.

Treatment for sinusitis

For an acute sinusitis attack, there are several treatments generally recommended by doctors. Decongestants can be taken to help relieve congestion and nasal blockage. Sometimes antibiotics are prescribed to help control the bacterial infection. Over-the-counter-pain relievers, such as acetaminophen, are helpful for relieving the fever, aches and pains generally associated with a sinus infection. Using a nasal saline wash can sooth sinuses and relieve swelling.

Using nasal decongestants for more than a few days is not recommended, as they can cause sinuses to be more swollen once the decongestant is discontinued. If you are suffering from sinusitis or a sinus infection, you should consult your doctor concerning the use of cold medicines or decongestants.

While sick, you can sooth your symptoms and improve your body's defenses by getting plenty of rest, drinking hot liquids, consuming lots of fluids, and applying moist heat by holding a warm, wet towel to your face. Running a humidifier can help relieve symptoms as well, by providing a source of warm, soothing moisture in the air.

Chronic sinusitis is usually treated with a combination of antibiotics and steroid nasal sprays. However, sometimes chronic sinusitis can persist for an extended period of time, even with treatment.

In some cases, doctors will recommend sinus surgery to patients who have not responded to other types of treatment. The surgery, called "functional endoscopic sinus surgery," can be performed in several sinus areas, including under the upper lip, inside the nose, or behind the eyebrows. In some cases it can be very helpful; however, it is only used as a last resort, when other medical treatments have proved unsuccessful. It does not cure most forms of sinusitis.

Preventing sinusitis

You can help prevent sinus attacks by avoiding colds and allergy symptoms, so it's a good idea to remove as many pollutants, irritants, and allergens from your environment as possible. Controlling allergies, and fighting colds with healthy habits, are important steps to take. But of course, not all colds and allergy attacks can be prevented. During an allergy attack or cold, you should use a short-term oral or nasal decongestant. Blow your nose gently to keep from damaging sinuses and keep nasal passages clear. Drink lots of fluids, which will help strength your body's immune defenses as well as keeping nasal discharge thin. Rinse nasal passages with a saline solution to reduce swelling and improve drainage. The important thing in preventing sinusitis is to keep nasal passages clear, as mucus build-up is what generally creates the conditions for a sinus infection.

For more information, see our article on Nasal Irrigation and Sinus Flush Solutions or see our entire offering of sinus irrigation products.