Thumbnail image of: Sinuses: Illustration


What is sinusitis?

Sinusitis is swelling and irritation of the linings of the sinuses. The sinuses are hollow spaces in the bones of your face and front of your skull. They connect with the nose through small openings. Like the nose, they are lined with tissue (membranes) that make mucus. Mucus drains through the small openings to the nose.

What is the cause?

The passageways from the sinuses to the nose are very narrow. When drainage of mucus from the sinuses is blocked, the sinuses get swollen and irritated. They may also become infected with bacteria, a virus, or even fungus. Allergies or irritation from pollen, mold, dust, or smoke can also cause swelling of the sinuses. Sometimes a tooth infection spreads to the sinuses.

You may be more likely to get sinus congestion and infections if you have:

  • Severe or untreated seasonal or year-round allergies
  • Injured the bones in your nose
  • A deformity of the nose that causes the sinuses not to drain properly
  • Small growths called polyps in the sinuses that partially block the sinus openings

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms may include:

  • Feeling of fullness or pressure in your face or head
  • A headache that is most painful when you first wake up in the morning or when you bend over and put your head down
  • Pain in your face
  • Aching in the upper jaw and teeth
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Cough, especially at night
  • Fluid draining down the back of your throat (postnasal drip)
  • Sore throat, especially in the morning or evening

How is it diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will ask about your symptoms and medical history and examine you. Tests are often not needed but may include:

  • X-ray of your sinuses
  • CT scan, which uses X-rays and a computer to show detailed pictures of the sinuses

How is it treated?

Several kinds of medicine may help:

  • Nonprescription pain medicine, such as acetaminophen, ibuprofen, or naproxen. Read the label and take as directed. Unless recommended by your healthcare provider, you should not take these medicines for more than 10 days.
    • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medicines (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen, naproxen, and aspirin, may cause stomach bleeding and other problems. These risks increase with age.
    • Acetaminophen may cause liver damage or other problems. Unless recommended by your provider, don’t take more than 3000 milligrams (mg) in 24 hours. To make sure you don’t take too much, check other medicines you take to see if they also contain acetaminophen. Ask your provider if you need to avoid drinking alcohol while taking this medicine.
  • Decongestants pills or nasal sprays to reduce swelling in your nose and sinuses and lessen the amount of mucus. Use decongestants as directed. If you are using a nonprescription nasal-spray decongestant, generally you should not use it for more than 3 days. After 3 days it may make your symptoms worse. Ask your healthcare provider if it is OK for you to use a nasal spray decongestant longer than this.
  • Antihistamine tablets or a nasal spray to treat the allergies during your allergy season or, in some cases, year-round. Antihistamines block the effect of a chemical your body makes when you have an allergic reaction.
  • Antibiotics, if your provider thinks you might have a sinus infection.

If sinusitis keeps being a problem despite treatment, you may be referred to an ear, nose, and throat specialist. The specialist will check for polyps or a deformed bone that may be blocking your sinuses. You may need surgery to create an extra or enlarged passageway to help your sinuses drain more easily.

Depending on what caused the sinusitis and how severe it is, it may last for days or weeks. For most cases of sinusitis, the symptoms get better gradually over 3 to 10 days.

How can I take care of myself?

Follow the full course of treatment prescribed by your healthcare provider. In addition:

  • If you are taking an antibiotic, take all of it as directed by your provider. If you stop taking the medicine when your symptoms are gone but before you have taken all of the medicine, symptoms may come back.
  • Don’t smoke, and stay away from others who are smoking.
  • If you have allergies, try to avoid the things you are allergic to, like animal dander. Use medicine to keep your nose and sinuses open.
  • Use a humidifier to put more moisture in the air. This can help to open blocked sinuses and relieve pain. Avoid steam vaporizers because they can cause burns. Be sure to keep the humidifier clean, as recommended in the manufacturer’s instructions. It’s important to keep bacteria and mold from growing in the water container.
  • Use saline nasal sprays or rinses to help wash out nasal passages if you have a sinus infection.
  • Get plenty of rest.
  • Drink more fluids to keep the mucus as thin as possible so your sinuses can drain more easily.
  • Raise the head of your bed slightly or sleep on extra pillows to help your sinuses drain.
  • Put warm, moist cloths on painful areas.

Ask your healthcare provider:

  • How and when you will hear your test results
  • How long it will take to recover
  • If there are activities you should avoid and when you can return to your normal activities
  • How to take care of yourself at home
  • What symptoms or problems you should watch for and what to do if you have them

Make sure you know when you should come back for a checkup. Keep all appointments for provider visits or tests.

How can I help prevent sinusitis?

  • Treat your colds and allergies promptly. Use decongestants as soon as you start having symptoms, and before you fly, travel to high altitudes, or swim in deep water.
  • If you smoke, try to quit. Talk to your healthcare provider about ways to quit smoking.
Developed by RelayHealth.
Adult Advisor 2015.1 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2014-10-21
Last reviewed: 2014-09-04
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright ©1986-2015 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All rights reserved.

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