Should You Take Antibiotics for a Sinus Infection?

Sinus infection. Jeannot Olivet/E+/Getty Images

One of the most common reasons people take antibiotics is for sinus infections. But are they really necessary? With the growing concern about antibiotic resistance - which the CDC has named as one of the biggest public health threats of our time - is it better to hold off on antibiotics when we have sinus infections?

In most cases, the answer is probably yes. Even when sinus infections are caused by bacteria, most of them go away on their own without the need for antibiotics.


Why Antibiotics Might Be Prescribed

There are times when antibiotics may be necessary or recommended for a sinus infection. These include:

  • Children with thick, runny nose that lasts longer than 2-3 weeks, possibly with a cough
  • Congestion with fever over 102.2F
  • Headache 
  • Swelling or pain around the eyes and face
  • Your symptoms have not improved at all after being sick for at least 10 days
  • Your symptoms start to get better within 10 days then get worse

Even if you have some of these symptoms, if your health care provider may suggest you try non-antibiotic remedies first. 

What You Can Do If You Don't Take Antibiotics

If your health care provider doesn't think you need antibiotics for your sinus infection, there are things you can try to relieve your discomfort. 

  • Neti pot or sinus rinse - this may be difficult if the congestion is very thick or not draining at all
  • Humidifier
  • Drink plenty of fluids to loosen the mucus in your sinuses (not alcohol)

What If I'm Always Congested?

Chronic sinusitis is diagnosed with a person has symptoms for longer than 12 weeks.

It is typically caused by swelling (inflammation) instead of bacteria and does not benefit from antibiotics. If you have symptoms that last for 3 months or longer, talk to your health care provider about what treatment options might be right for you. Some people with chronic sinusitis benefit from frequent sinus rinses and steroid nasal sprays and others may need surgery to get relief. Your health care provider can determine what treatment is most appropriate for you. 

What Will Happen If I Don't Take Antibiotics?

Most cases of acute (short term) sinusitis resolve on their own. If your symptoms have lasted for several weeks and you have not yet seen your health care provider, it's probably worth a visit. 

Complications of sinus infections are very rare, but they can occur. Serious and life threatening complications that can develop from sinus infections include:

  • Abscess
  • Bone infections (osteomyelitis)
  • Meningitis
  • Infection around the eye (orbital cellulitis)

As always, this information is intended for educational purposes only.

If you have concerns or questions about your health, contact your health care provider. 


"Sinusitis". Medical Encyclopedia 28 Jul 15. MedlinePlus. US National Library of Medicine. US Department of Health and Human Services. National Institutes of Health. 30 Jul 15. 

"Sinusitis". Patient Health Information 2015. American Academy of Otolaryngology
— Head and Neck Surgery. 31 Jul 15. 

"Antibiotic Resistance Questions & Answers". Get Smart: Know When Antibiotics Work 17 Apr 15. National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, Division of Bacterial Diseases. US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. US Department of Health and Human Services. National Institutes of Health. 31 Jul 15. 

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