Sinusitis (Sinus Infection or Sinus Inflammation)

What Is Sinusitis?

Sinusitis is an infection or inflammation of the sinuses. A sinus is simply a hollow space. There are many sinuses in the body, including four pairs inside the skull. These are called the paranasal sinuses. They lighten the skull and give resonance to the voice.

The paranasal sinuses have the same kind of tissue that lines the inside of the nose. The same things that can cause swelling in the nose, allergies or infection, can also affect the sinuses. When the tissue inside the sinuses swells, mucus increases. Over time, air trapped inside swollen sinuses can create painful pressure inside the head. This is a sinus headache.

What Causes Sinusitis?

Infection with a virus causes most cases of sinusitis. Colds, bacterial infections, allergies, asthma and other health conditions can cause sinusitis. If the sinuses remain blocked for a long time, you may get a secondary infection. This secondary infection is caused by bacteria that are normally present in the respiratory tract. These bacteria multiply and cause a sinus infection when they are unable to drain out of the blocked sinuses.

What Are the Types of Sinusitis?

There are two types of sinusitis.

Acute sinusitis is a temporary inflammation of the sinuses. The mucous membranes of your nose, sinuses and throat swell. This could happen when you have a cold or allergies. Swelling blocks the sinus openings and prevents normal mucus drainage. This causes mucus and pressure to build up. 

Chronic sinusitis occurs when symptoms become more frequent or worse. Sinus infections may cause chronic sinus inflammation and symptoms. If you have more than three sinus infections in a year or have symptoms longer than 12 weeks, you could have chronic sinusitis. More than 50 percent of people with moderate to severe asthma also have chronic sinusitis.

What Are the Symptoms of Sinusitis?

When a sinus infection results from blocked sinuses, you can have symptoms like:

  • Thick white, yellow or greenish discharge from the nose or drainage down the back of the throat (called postnasal drip)
  • Nasal obstruction or congestion
  • Tenderness and swelling around the eyes, cheeks, nose and forehead
  • A reduced sense of smell and taste

What Is the Treatment for Sinusitis?

The first step to treat sinusitis is to unblock the nasal passages. This helps proper drainage of the sinuses. Draining the sinuses helps flush out a bacterial infection. If you have a bacterial infection, your doctor will also prescribe an antibiotic to fight it.

Here are a few common treatment options for sinusitis:

Nasal irrigation or steam inhalation. To irrigate your sinuses, you rinse your nose with warm salt water using a neti pot or a special rinse bottle. Steam inhalation involves breathing hot steam through your nose for 10 to 15 minutes, three to four times a day.

Nasal steroids. Sprays help decrease swelling. Use your nasal spray properly to avoid side effects. Read the directions carefully to avoid problems.

Antibiotics. Your doctor may prescribe a course of antibiotics to fight a bacterial infection.

Oral steroids. These are given for severe chronic sinusitis. These are powerful medicines with major side effects. These medicines are usually only prescribed when other medicines failed.

If your chronic sinusitis symptoms will not go away with these treatments, you may be a candidate for sinus surgery. Conventional sinus surgery is also known as functional endoscopic sinus surgery. A less-invasive option that uses a balloon catheter is called “balloon sinuplasty.” Both surgeries open up blocked sinuses, restoring normal sinus drainage and may temporarily help reduce symptoms.

How Can I Prevent Sinusitis?

There is little information about the prevention of acute or chronic sinusitis. But the following measures may help:

  • Avoid contact with allergens or irritants that trigger your nasal allergies. 
  • Keep your nasal passages as free and clear as possible. This is important if you have allergies.
  • Avoid infections by washing your hands often during common cold season. Also avoid touching your face.


Medical Review October 2015.