What is sinusitis?

Sinusitis is an infection of lining of the sinuses near the nose. These infections most often happen after a cold or after an allergy flare-up. There are 4 types:

  • Acute. Symptoms last less than 4 weeks and get better with the right care.
  • Subacute. This type of infection does not get better with treatment at first. Symptoms last 4 to 8 weeks.
  • Chronic. Chronic infection happens with repeated or poorly treated acute infections. These symptoms last 8 weeks or longer.
  • Recurrent. If you have 3 or more episodes of acute sinusitis in a year, it’s called recurrent.

The sinuses are cavities, or air-filled pockets, that are near the nose passage. The sinuses make mucus. This fluid cleans the bacteria and other particles out of the air you breathe. 

What causes sinusitis?

A sinus infection can happen after a cold. The cold inflames the nasal passages. This can block the opening of the sinuses and lead to infection. Allergies can also cause the nasal tissue to swell and make more mucus and cause sinusitis.

Other conditions that can lead to sinusitis include:

  • Abnormalities in the structure of the nose
  • Enlarged adenoids
  • Diving and swimming
  • Tooth infections
  • Nose injury
  • Foreign objects that are stuck in the nose
  • Secondhand smoke

If mucus drainage is blocked, bacteria may start to grow. This leads to a sinus infection, or sinusitis. The most common viruses and bacteria that cause sinusitis also cause the flu or certain kinds of pneumonia.

What are the symptoms of sinusitis?

The symptoms of sinusitis may depend on your age. These are the most common symptoms of sinusitis:

Younger children

  • Runny nose that lasts longer than 7 to 10 days. The discharge is often thick green or yellow, but can also be clear.
  • Cough at night
  • Occasional daytime cough
  • Swelling around the eyes

Older children and adults

  • Runny nose or cold symptoms that last longer than 7 to 10 days
  • Complaints of drip in the throat from the nose
  • Headaches
  • Facial pain
  • Bad breath
  • Cough
  • Fever
  • Sore throat
  • Swelling around the eyes, worse in the morning

The symptoms of sinusitis may look like other conditions or health problems. Always talk to your health care provider for a diagnosis.

How is sinusitis diagnosed?

Often, your health care provider can diagnosis sinusitis based on your symptoms and a physical exam. Sometimes other tests are done. These may include:

  • Cultures from the nose
  • Sinus X-rays
  • Sinus computed tomography (CT or CAT scan). This imaging method uses X-rays and computer technology to make images (often called slices) of the body.
  • Blood tests

How is sinusitis treated?

Your health care provider will figure out the best care based on:

  • How old you are
  • Your overall health and medical history
  • How sick you are
  • How well you can handle specific medications, procedures, or therapies
  • How long the condition is expected to last
  • Your opinion or preference

Treatment of sinusitis may include:

  • Pain relievers
  • Nose drops
  • Antibiotics for severe symptoms, such as fever, face pain or tenderness, or swelling around the eyes  
  • Surgery, if other treatments have failed

You may be referred to an allergist or immunologist, especially for chronic or recurrent sinusitis. People who have had sinus surgery, but still have sinusitis, may also be referred.

Decongestants and antihistamines do not seem to help the symptoms of sinusitis.

When should I see a health care provider?

You should see a health care provider right away if you have:

  • Vision changes
  • Severe or intense facial pain or pressure
  • High fever
  • Neck stiffness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Swelling or redness around one or both eyes
  • Trouble thinking

These symptoms may point to a serious condition.

Key points

  • Sinusitis is inflammation of the lining of sinuses in the face. It mainly causes pain and too much mucus production.
  • It may follow a cold or allergies.
  • Inflammation caused by a virus may resolve in about 10 days and won’t need antibiotics.
  • Inflammation caused by bacteria needs antibiotics.
  • Treatment aims to relieve the pain and discomfort, and reduce inflammation and mucus production.
  • Make sure to take all antibiotics as prescribed and to finish the prescription.

Next steps

Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your health care provider:

  • Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.
  • Bring someone with you to help you ask questions and remember what your provider tells you.
  • At the visit, write down the names of new medicines, treatments, or tests, and any new instructions your provider gives you.
  • If you have a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.
  • Know how you can contact your provider if you have questions.