What Is Sinus Infection?

Sinus infection, or sinusitis, is an inflammation, or swelling, of the tissues lining the sinuses and nasal passages. A sinus infection can cause a headache or pressure in the eyes, nose, cheek area, or on one side of the head. A person with a sinus infection may also have a cough, sore throat, fever, bad breath, and nasal congestion with thick nasal secretions. Acute sinusitis typically lasts less than eight weeks or occurs no more than three times per year with each episode lasting no longer than 10 days. Chronic sinusitis lasts longer than eight weeks or occurs more than four times per year, with symptoms usually lasting more than 20 days.

When you have sinusitis, the mucous membranes of your nose, sinuses and throat become inflamed. Swelling obstructs the sinus openings and prevents mucus from draining normally, causing facial pain and other sinusitis symptoms. Blocked sinuses create a moist environment that makes it easier for infection to take hold.

What Causes Sinusitis?

About 37 million Americans suffer from at least one episode of sinusitis each year. Acute sinusitis is most often caused by the common cold. Other triggers include allergies, nasal polyps, bacterial and fungal infections, tooth infections, and structure differences that narrow the drainage ducts.

What Are the Symptoms of Sinusitis?

The primary symptoms of acute sinusitis include: Swelling and pressure around your eyes, cheeks, nose or forehead, nasal stuffiness and discharge, loss of smell or taste, congestion and cough. Additional symptoms may include: Fever, bad breath, and fatigue, ear pain, headache, aching in your upper jaw and teeth.

If these conditions last for 8 weeks or more you probably have chronic sinusitis.


Treatment for sinusitis depends on the severity. Your doctor may use several methods to help screen for sinusitis and its cause, such as:

  • Physical exam. To look for the cause of your symptoms, your doctor will feel for tenderness in your nose or throat.
  • Nasal endoscopy. A thin, flexible tube (endoscope) with a fiber-optic light inserted through your nose allows your doctor to visually inspect the inside of your sinuses.
  • Imaging studies. Images taken using computerized tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can show details of your sinuses and nasal area.
  • Nasal and sinus cultures.
  • Allergy testing. If your doctor suspects that the condition may be brought on by allergies, an allergy skin test may be recommended.
  • Treatments and drugs

To reduce congestion due to sinusitis, your doctor may prescribe nasal sprays, nose drops, or oral decongestant medicine. If you suffer from severe chronic sinusitis, oral steroids might be prescribed to reduce inflammation. Antibiotics may be prescribed for any bacterial infection found in the sinuses. An antihistamine may be recommended for the treatment of allergies. Antifungal medicine may be prescribed for a fungal sinus infection. Use of nonprescription decongestant nasal drops or sprays might be effective in controlling symptoms, however, they should not be used beyond their recommended use. Antibiotics may also be prescribed.

If antibiotics and other medicines are not effective in opening the sinus, surgery may be necessary. Also, if there is a structural abnormality of the sinus such as nasal polyps, which can obstruct sinus drainage, surgery may be needed. A procedure called a “turbinectomy” may also be performed to permanently shrink the swollen membranes of the nose.

Contact your doctor if you have any of the following:

  • Symptoms that don’t improve within a few days or symptoms that get worse
  • A persistent fever
  • A history of recurrent or chronic sinusitis

See a doctor immediately if you have signs or symptoms that may indicate a serious infection:

  • Pain or swelling around your eyes
  • Swollen forehead
  • Severe headache
  • Confusion
  • Double vision or other vision changes
  • Stiff neck
  • Shortness of breath