How to Tell If You Have a Sinus Infection

Understanding Sinus Infection Causes and Treatment

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A sinus infection, or sinusitis, is when the sinuses - the hollow recesses in the forehead, nose, and cheeks - become infected with a virus or bacteria. The sinuses become inflamed, which can cause severe pain and cold-like symptoms.

Sinus infections occur when the mucous membranes in the upper respiratory tract - the nose, sinuses and throat - become inflamed and swell. This inflammation blocks the sinus openings and prevents mucus from draining properly.

Blocked sinuses create a moist environment in which an infection thrives.

Most sinus infections are caused by a viral infection - the common cold - but when that cold lasts for a week or longer, a bacterial infection is likely to blame. Sinus infections are also caused by fungal infections, though this is more likely to occur among people with weakened immune systems and existing sinus issues.

Allergies, nasal polyps or tumors, and a deviated septum can also block the sinuses and encourage an infection to take hold. Other health conditions, such as a tooth infection, GERD, and cystic fibrosis, can also lead to sinus blockages and infections.

Symptoms of Sinus Infections

Because most sinus infections are viral, they are often preceded by an upper respiratory infection, or cold. Common symptoms include:

  • yellow or green mucus
  • pain, swelling and pressure around the nose, forehead and cheeks
  • post-nasal drip
  • congestion
  • cough
  • fatigue
  • fever
  • headache
  • toothaches
  • ear pain

Diagnosing Sinus Infections

Mild symptoms of sinus infections can often be treated with at-home care, but you should call your doctor if you have any of the following:

  • symptoms that don't improve after a few days or worsen
  • recurring sinus infections
  • persistent fever

    Other symptoms require immediate care. See a doctor immediately if you experience any of the following, as it may indicate a more serious condition:

    • severe headache
    • confusion
    • changes in vision, including double vision
    • shortness of breath
    • swollen forehead
    • severe pain or swelling around the eyes

    Sinus infections can be diagnosed and treated by a family doctor or ENT specialist. Typically sinus infections are diagnosed based solely on a patient's symptoms, but in some cases, a doctor will perform a rhinoscopy to look into the nose. CT scans and MRIs are less commonly used. A doctor may also take a culture of nasal drainage or recommend allergy testing to identify the cause of the sinus infection.

    How to Treat a Sinus Infection

    Since most sinus infections are caused by the same viruses that cause the common cold, self-care is often the only treatment necessary. There are many over-the-counter medications that relieve sinus infection symptoms. These include:

    • saline nasal spray
    • pain relievers, such as acetaminophen, ibuprofen and naproxen
    • decongestants, such as Sudafed and Afrin

    A doctor may also prescribe a nasal corticosteroid to address inflammation, such as Flonase or Nasonex. Sinus infections caused by a bacterial infection usually improve without the use of antibiotics.

    Antibiotics are typically only prescribed if the infection is severe or recurring. In extreme, complicated cases, sinus surgery may be necessary.

    In addition to medication, there are quite a few at-home remedies that can greatly reduce sinus infection symptoms. Drink lots of fluids and get plenty of rest. A hot shower will relieve pain, promote drainage and open up the sinus cavities. Reduce facial pain and swelling by applying a warm compress to your face. Many people who suffer from sinus infections swear by nasal rinses such as Sinus Rinse or a neti pot to flush out the sinuses.


    Mayo Clinic Staff. Accute Sinusitis. Accessed: March 28, 2016 from

    Medline Plus. Sinusitis. Accessed: January 12, 2010 from