What is a sinus infection?
The sinuses are hollow spaces within the bones of the face. Collectively, they’re called the paranasal sinuses. The sinuses are part of your nose and respiratory system.
There are four pairs of sinuses that are linked together, which are located in the cheeks (maxillary), forehead (frontal), around your eyes near the bridge of your nose (ethmoidal), and behind your eyes, deeper in your skull (sphenoid).
When the sinuses become inflamed, swollen or infected, this is medically known as sinusitis or rhinosinusitis. Sinusitis can be acute (lasting less than 4 weeks), sub-acute (lasting between 4 and 12 weeks) or chronic (lasting more than 12 weeks, or recurring).1
How do you get a sinus infection?
Sinusitis is an infection or inflammation of the nasal passages caused by too much mucus or a swelling of the sinus’ lining which can block the narrow channels of the nasal passages*. This can occur due to:
- upper respiratory infections (most commonly colds)
- allergies such as hay fever
- nasal polyps which can block the nasal passages or sinuses
- deviated nasal septum, where the wall between the nostrils is crooked and restricts sinus passages
- complications of medical conditions such as cystic fibrosis, HIV and other immune system-related conditions
Acute sinusitis is usually caused by a cold or hay fever, whereas chronic sinusitis is often a result of underlying conditions or structural problems in the sinus or nasal cavity.
What are the signs and symptoms?
Typical signs and symptoms of a sinus infection may include:
- inflamed nasal passages
- blocked nose and congestion
- thick, yellow or green discharge from the nose
- drainage of mucus down the back of the throat
- headache or pressure in your head or face
- pain, tenderness and swelling around your eyes, cheeks, nose or forehead, especially when you lean forward
- aching teeth in the upper jaw
- reduced sense of smell and taste
- persistent cough, irritated or sore throat, or hoarse voice caused by postnasal drip
- bad breath
- feeling generally unwell
Chronic sinusitis is defined as having symptoms for at least 12 weeks, while recurrent sinusitis is more than four episodes of sinusitis a year2. Chronic sinusitis may also lead to a middle ear infection, causing pain and temporary deafness. If you experience any of these symptoms, see your doctor.
Symptoms of sinusitis in children can differ to those in adults. Signs your child may have a sinus infection include:
- a cold that lasts more than a week, with fever
- thick, yellow or green mucus from the nose
- swelling around eyes
- post-nasal drip, which causes bad breath, coughing, vomiting or feeling unwell
- headache or earache
When should you see a doctor about a sinus infection?
You should visit your doctor if you have:
- recurring sinus infections
- sinusitis symptoms for more than 10 days
- fever, severe headache, pain around your sinuses, or swelling of your face or forehead
- problems with your vision when you have an infection
If your sinusitis is caused by a bacterial infection, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics. If it’s caused by allergies, your doctor may send you to an allergist.
How to get rid of a sinus infection?
There are a number of treatments you can use for sinus relief. These include:
- over-the-counter (OTC) pain relief such as paracetamol
- nasal decongestant sprays —seek pharmacist advice on usage, as repeated use for more than four to five days in a row may cause side-effects, including rebound nasal congestion
- steam inhalation, with the addition of eucalyptus oil3 to help clear nasal passages and reduce inflammation
- comfortably hot compress held against the face
- nasal irrigation or saline wash to help clear nasal passages
Most people will recover fully from sinusitis in a week or so without antibiotics. However, in some cases antibiotics may be necessary.
How can I prevent a sinus infection all year round?
By taking the following precautions, you can reduce your risk of getting sinusitis:
- Quit smoking and avoid cigarette smoke or polluted air, which can irritate and inflame nasal passages.
- Manage your allergies by working to avoid triggers and keep symptoms under control.
- Avoid upper respiratory tract infections such as colds and flu, by washing your hands frequently with soap and water, using hand sanitiser, and avoiding touching your face.
- Use a humidifier to add moisture to the air as this may help loosen mucous/phlegm in your chest.
- Get your annual flu vaccination.
General advice only – this information should not replace the information provided to you by your health care professional. If symptoms are severe or persist, please speak to your health care professional. Information current as of date of publishing.
* Better Health Victoria, Sinusitis https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/conditionsandtreatments/sinusitis,/small>
1 Medical News Today, Everything you need to know about sinusitis, https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/149941#causes
2 National Center for Biotechnology Information, Chronic Sinusitis, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK441934/
3 Better Health Victoria, Sinusitis, https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/conditionsandtreatments/sinusitis