Sinusitis occurs when your sinuses -- air filled cavities around your nose, eyes, and cheeks -- get inflamed. The inflammation is often due to an infection, caused by a virus (such as a cold), bacteria, or fungus. When your sinuses are inflamed, mucus can't drain. Eventually, the sinus cavities become blocked, making it harder for your body to heal the infection.
Sinusitis can be acute (with symptoms lasting fewer than 8 weeks), chronic (with symptoms recurring or lasting longer than 8 weeks), or recurrent (with three or more acute episodes a year). Most cases of sinusitis are acute and caused by a cold. Sinusitis is very common. Each year, more 30 million people (adults and children alike) get sinusitis in the United States.
Signs and Symptoms
The symptoms of acute and chronic sinusitis are similar. Chronic sinusitis usually does not cause fever, and its symptoms last longer. Chronic sinusitis is most common in people who have allergies.
- Pain or pressure in your forehead, temples, cheeks, nose, and behind your eyes
- Nasal congestion
- Nasal discharge (yellow or green)
- Postnasal drip (a sensation of fluid dripping down the back of your throat, particularly at night or when lying down)
- Cough, often worse at night
- Sore throat
- Bad breath
- Loss of sense of smell
- General sense of not feeling well (malaise)
Sinusitis usually follows an upper respiratory infection (such as a cold) or an allergic reaction (such as hay fever or allergic rhinitis). These can cause inflammation and swelling that keeps the sinuses from draining properly. When sinuses become blocked, they provide a place for bacteria, viruses, and fungus to live and grow rapidly. Although a cold is most often the culprit, anything that prevents the sinuses from draining can cause sinusitis.
Other common causes for sinusitis include:
- Allergies (such as hay fever, cigarette smoke, and dry air, pollutants)
- Changes in air pressure (for example, from swimming or climbing high altitudes)
- Infections from dental problems
- Obstructions in the nasal or sinus cavities (such as nasal polyps, deviated septum, or nasal bone spur)
- Physical injury to the sinuses
- Bacteria, viruses, and fungi
Risk factors for sinusitis include:
- Having asthma
- Overuse of nasal decongestants
- Frequent swimming or diving
- Climbing or flying to high altitudes
- Nasal polyps (swellings in the nasal passage), nasal bone spurs, or other abnormalities such as a deviated septum or cleft palate
- Dental infection
- Exposure to air pollution and cigarette smoke
- Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), in which stomach acid backs up into the esophagus
- Being in the hospital, especially if the reason you are in the hospital is related to a head injury or you needed a tube inserted into your nose (for example, a nasogastric tube from your nose to your stomach)
Although chronic sinusitis can be hard to diagnose because the symptoms are similar to that of a cold, your health care provider can generally diagnosis sinusitis from your medical history and by examining you. If your health care provider suspects chronic sinusitis, he or she may order imaging tests, including an x-ray, computed tomography (CT) scan, or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). If your health care provider suspects allergies may be causing your sinusitis, he or she may suggest an allergy test. Sometimes, a referral to a specialist -- known as an ear, nose and throat (ENT) doctor or an otolaryngologist -- is necessary. This specialist may perform a nasal endoscopy using a fiber optic scope to look at your sinuses.
The best way to prevent sinusitis is by:
- Getting an annual flu shot
- Washing your hands often, particularly after shaking hands with others
- Eating plenty of fruits and vegetables to keep your immune system strong
- Reducing stress
Treatment of sinusitis aims to reduce inflammation and clear your sinuses. Your doctor may prescribe antibiotics or corticosteroids. Lifestyle changes, such as using a humidifier or irrigating your nasal passages with salt water, may also help. Several dietary supplements and herbs may help prevent colds and flu, shorten their duration, or work together with antibiotics to treat your infection and support your immune system.
These measures can help reduce congestion in your sinuses:
- Using a humidifier
- Using a saline nasal spray
- Inhaling steam 2 - 4 times per day (for example, sitting in the bathroom with the shower running)
- Quickly treating allergic and asthma attacks
Antibiotics -- Your health care provider may prescribe antibiotics if your health care provider suspects you have a bacterial infection. To treat acute sinusitis, you may take from 10 - 14 days of antibiotics. Treating chronic sinusitis may take longer, usually 3 - 4 weeks.
Nasal corticosteroids -- These prescription sprays reduce inflammation of the nose and help relieve sneezing, itching, and runny nose. They are most effective at reducing symptoms, although it can take from a few days to a week after you start using them to see improvement.
- Beclomethasone (Beconase)
- Fluticasone (Flonase)
- Mometasone (Nasonex)
- Triacinolone (Nasacort)
Antihistamines -- Antihistamines are available in both oral and nasal spray forms, and as prescription drugs and over the counter remedies. Over the counter antihistamines are short acting and can relieve mild to moderate symptoms. All work by blocking the release of histamine in your body.
- Over-the-counter (OTC) antihistamines: Include diphenhydramine (Benadryl), chlorpheniramine (Chlor-Trimeton), and clemastine (Tavist). These older antihistamines can cause sleepiness. Loratadine (Claritin), a newer antihistamine, does not cause drowsiness. All OTC antihistimines are short-acting and can relieve mild-to-moderate symptoms.
- Prescription antihistamines: Include fexofenadine (Allegra) and cetrizine (Zyrtec). These medications are longer-acting than over-the-counter antihistamines and are usually taken once a day.
Decongestants -- Many over the counter and prescription decongestants are available in tablet or nasal spray form. They are often used with antihistamines. Oral and nasal decongestants include Sudafed, Actifed, Afrin, Neo-Synephrine. Some decongestants may contain pseudoephedrine, which can raise blood pressure. People with high blood pressure or an enlarged prostate should not take drugs containing pseudoephedrine. Nasal decongestants can cause "rebound congestion," where the nasal passages swell. Avoid using nasal decongestants for more than 3 days in a row, unless your health care provider tells you to, and do not use them if you have emphysema or chronic bronchitis.
Surgery and Other Procedures
For chronic sinusitis that doesn’t respond to medication, your doctor may recommend endoscopic sinus surgery, which may be done to remove polyps or bone spurs. Enlarging the sinus opening is also sometimes recommended. A newer procedure called balloon rhinoplasty involves inserting a balloon inside the sinus cavity and then inflating it. Your health care provider may suggest other alternatives.
Nutrition and Dietary Supplements
Because supplements may have side effects or interact with medications, you should take them only under the supervision of a knowledgeable health care provider.
- Bromelain -- Several studies suggest that bromelain, an enzyme derived from pineapples, may help reduce inflammation and swelling and relieve symptoms of sinusitis. However, not all studies found any benefit. Bromelain is often combined with quercetin a flavonoid (plant pigment responsible for the colors found in fruits and vegetables) that may act as an antihistamine. Bromelain may increase the risk of bleeding, so people who take anticoagulants (blood thinners) should not take bromelain without talking to their doctor first. Taking bromelain with ACE inhibitors may cause a drop in blood pressure (hypotension).
- Quercetin -- Quercetin is a flavonoid, a plant pigment responsible for the colors found in fruits and vegetables. In test tubes, it inhibits the production and release of histamine, which causes allergy symptoms such as a runny nose and watery eyes. It’s often combined with bromelain, a supplement made from pineapples. However, there is not much evidence that quercetin would work the same way in humans. More studies are needed. Some people report that water soluble quercetin, such as quercietin methyl chalcone, may work best.
- Probiotics (Lactobacillus) -- Probiotics, or "friendly" bacteria, may be helpful if you are taking antibiotics for sinusitis. They may also reduce your chances of developing allergies. Probiotics may not be appropriate for certain people who are extremely immunocompromised or who take immunosuppresent drugs; talk to your health care provider.
- N-acetylcysteine (NAC, 1,000 mg 3 times per day with meals) -- NAC is a modified form of a dietary amino acid that works as an antioxidant in the body. It also helps thin mucus. Although no scientific studies have been done to see if it works for sinusitis, some doctors report that it does lessen sinus congestion. NAC may interact with nitroglycerin, use to treat chest pain (angina).
The use of herbs is a time-honored approach to strengthening the body and treating disease. Herbs, however, can trigger side effects and can interact with other herbs, supplements, or medications. For these reasons, you should take herbs only under the supervision of a health care provider.
- Essential oil monoterpenes -- A combination of essential oils --, including eucalyptus, a citrus oil, and an extract from pine -- has been suggested for several respiratory illnesses, including sinusitis. One study found that people with viral sinusitis who took essential oil monoterpenes did better than people who took placebo. However, more studies are needed.
- Sinupret (A proprietary formulation containing Sambucus nigra or European elder, Rumex acetosa or common sorrel, Primula veris or cowslip, Verbena officinalis or European vervain, Gentiana lutea or gentian) -- In two studies, Sinupret was found to be more effective than placebo in relieving symptoms of sinusitis. The herbs it contains may work by thinning mucus and helping the sinuses to drain, and they may also help strengthen the immune system.
Although studies are few and have found conflicting results, some people may find that acupuncture helps relieve symptoms of sinusitis. Acupuncturists usually describe sinusitis as "dampness," which creates inflammation and congestion in the mucus membranes. This dampness is cleared by strengthening the spleen meridian and by working with the stomach meridian. Practitioners often perform needling therapy or moxibustion (a technique in which the herb mugwort is burned over specific acupuncture points) for this condition.
A 2009 double-blind, randomized, controlled study found that acupuncture significantly improved nasal air flow and decreased congestion in participants with chronic sinusisits. These benefits also increased 30 minutes after treatment.
Although no studies have examined using chiropractic to treat sinusitis, some practitioners suggest that it may decrease pain and improve sinus drainage for some people.
There have been few studies examining the effectiveness of specific homeopathic remedies in general. In one study of homeopathy for sinusitis, however, more than 80% of the 119 participants had significant improvement in their symptoms after taking the homeopathic remedy for 2 weeks without antibiotics or other medications. Professional homeopaths may recommend one or more of the following treatments for sinus congestion based on their knowledge and clinical experience. Before prescribing a remedy, homeopaths take into account a person's constitutional type. In homeopathic terms, a person's constitution is his or her physical, emotional, and intellectual makeup. An experienced homeopath assesses all of these factors when determining the most appropriate remedy for a particular individual.
- Hepar sulphuricum -- for the later stages of sinus inflammation when the pain is concentrated between the eyes and is worsened by cold or motion; nasal discharge tends to be thick and the individual may experience sensitivity of the scalp
- Kali bichromicum -- this remedy is considered the first choice homeopathic treatment for sinusitis; it is most appropriate for individuals who have pain between the eyes or in the forehead above one eye; nasal discharge is generally stringy; scalp and facial bones are tender to touch and the person may feel dizzy or nauseated; pain is worse around noon and with cold and motion, but improves with warmth and pressure
- Mercurius -- for sinusitis with thick, green, foul smelling nasal discharge which may be blood tinged; there may also be a gripping pain around the head extending to the teeth; persons for whom Mercurius is appropriate have symptoms that worsen with open air, sleeping, eating, drinking, and extreme hot or cold; they may also have difficulty regulating their temperature (the individual often fluctuates from feeling cold and chilled to hot and sweaty)
- Pulsatilla -- for individuals who have a thick, bland, yellow or greenish discharge that is often accompanied by nausea and indigestion; symptoms tend to improve with cool air, pressure, and cool compresses; symptoms worsen when the individual is lying down, especially in a warm room; this remedy is appropriate for individuals who are distinctly not thirsty and require tremendous comforting
- Silicea -- for individuals with chronic congestion accompanied by head pain that tends to be worse in the right eye; this pain is worsened by cold, movement, light, noise, and mental concentration (such as when studying), but relieved by heat and pressure
- Spigelia -- for sinusitis with sharp pains on the left side of the face, generally coming on after exposure to cold, wet weather; symptoms are aggravated by warmth, light, noise, and movement, but are relieved by cold compresses or cool water on the face and when the individual is lying down with the head propped up
If you are not better in a few weeks, your doctor may refer you to an ENT specialist for tests to find the cause of your sinus infection.
Sinusitis often acts up during pregnancy. There are many herbs and medications that pregnant and breastfeeding women should not use, so always ask your doctor before taking any medication, whether prescription, over the counter, or alternative.
Warnings and Precautions
Some serious diseases have similar symptoms to sinusitis. Be sure to see your health care provider if you are not feeling better or have new symptoms. Tell your health care provider if you may be pregnant.
Prognosis and Complications
Acute sinusitis is usually curable. If you have recurrent attacks, you should be evaluated for underlying causes (such as nasal polyps or another structural problem). Although very rare, complications may include:
- Osteomyelitis, an infection that spreads to the bones in the face
- Meningitis, an infection that spreads to the brain
- Orbital cellulites, an infection that spreads to the area surrounding the eye
- Blood clot
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Sinus infection; Sinus inflammation
- Last Reviewed on 01/12/2012
- Steven D. Ehrlich, NMD, Solutions Acupuncture, a private practice specializing in complementary and alternative medicine, Phoenix, AZ. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network.
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