Common symptoms of a sinus infection
• Sinusitis vs. colds
• When to see doctor
A sinus infection, also called sinusitis, is a common and painful condition that causes stuffy, painful pressure in the nasal cavity.
Sinusitis affects around 31 million people in America each year. Most cases of sinusitis are due to a virus and will go away on their own. Viral sinusitis is contagious, so take steps to avoid passing it on to other people.
Bacteria, and in rare cases a fungus, might also be responsible for causing sinusitis.
It can be challenging to tell sinusitis apart from a cold or allergy, so knowing the symptoms of a sinus infection can help with finding the best treatment.
In this article, we look at the symptoms and treatments of sinusitis and explain how to tell the difference between a sinus infection and a cold.
Eleven symptoms of a sinus infection
Fatigue and bad breath characterize sinusitis.
The characteristic symptoms of a sinus infection include:
Sinus pain and pressure
Fluid trapped in the sinuses can fill the sinus cavities, causing intense pain and pressure. The sinuses may be sensitive to the touch. A person may have an urge to sneeze but be unable to do so.
The pain can be in the cheeks, around the eyes and nose, or in the forehead because these areas are where the sinuses are. Bending over may make the pain worse.
Sometimes, the pressure and pain are intense enough to interfere with sleep.
Sinusitis may also cause the tissue in the nose to swell.
The pressure and pain of sinusitis can cause headaches in the front of the head. Some people find that the pain radiates elsewhere, causing more widespread problems or even neck pain.
Postnasal drip is mucus that drips from the nose down to the back of the throat. It can cause feelings of hoarseness and congestion, or a sense of pressure in the throat or mouth.
A person with a sinus infection might have a viral infection or, less commonly, a bacterial or fungal infection in their sinuses. This usually happens where there is fluid trapped in the sinuses in which viruses, bacteria, or fungus can grow. Because of the fluid build-up and inflammation, a person is likely to feel congested.
A sinus infection can cause mucus and fluid to back up in the throat, which may make the throat itch or feel full. Some people repeatedly cough to try to clear the throat, but others experience uncontrollable coughing.
A fever is a sign that the body is fighting off an infection. Some people develop a fever with a sinus infection. Other symptoms associated with fever include chills, exhaustion, and muscle aches.
Brightly colored mucus
Viruses, bacteria, or fungus in the mucus can change its color. People with sinus infections often notice that they cough up green or yellow phlegm, or that the mucus they blow out of their nose is a bright color.
Sinusitis causes a lot of mucus production, and a person may find they are unable to clear the sinuses no matter how often they blow their nose.
Fighting a sinus infection demands energy from the body, so it is common to feel fatigued. Some people feel exhausted because they cannot breathe easily or are in pain.
The mucus associated with a sinus infection may have a bad odor, which can cause smelly breath or a bad taste in the mouth.
Intense sinus pressure can cause pain in the gums, which can lead to toothaches, gum pain, or general pain in the mouth.
Chronic sinus pain
Some sinus infections can become chronic. Anyone who experiences sinus pain and pressure that lasts several weeks and that is unrelated to an allergy or infection might have chronic sinusitis.
Is it a sinus infection or cold?
Swelling and tenderness of the face are common symptoms of sinusitis, but not a cold.
It can be difficult to tell the difference between a sinus infection and a cold as the symptoms can be very similar. Sinus infections often develop after a cold.
Sinusitis tends to last longer than a cold. Cold symptoms tend to get steadily worse, peaking at 3–5 days, then gradually get better. Sinus infections may last 10 days or more.
Some symptoms are more likely to be caused by sinusitis than a cold, including:
• swelling of the tissue in the nose
• bad breath
• green discharge from the nose
• swollen or tender face
Unlike a cold, sinusitis can become chronic, which means it lasts longer than 3 months. Chronic sinusitis causes swelling and irritation in the sinuses and usually develops after a person has had acute sinusitis. Sometimes the symptoms go away and then come back again. Ongoing sinus symptoms —even if they get better and then come back — may indicate chronic sinusitis.
Treating a sinus infection
Sinus infections often go away on their own without medical treatment. There are, however, some things a person can do at home to relieve the bothersome symptoms.
To treat sinusitis symptoms with home remedies, try:
• Applying a warm compress to the sinuses, which eases pain and pressure by loosening up the fluid in the sinuses.
• Using a nasal wash or sinus rinse, such as a saline spray or neti pot, which are available from drug stores and online.
• Taking antihistamine tablets to reduce inflammation in the sinuses; there is a variety of antihistamines available in supermarkets and online.
• Using a nasal decongestant spray to help clear the sinuses and relieve pressure. These sprays are also available to buy from drug stores or online.
Avoid using decongestants on a long-term basis without talking to a doctor first because they can make congestion worse if used for too long.
When to see a doctor
Discuss intense sinus pain with a doctor.
A person may wish to talk to their doctor if:
• symptoms last longer than 7 to 10 days
• a child has a fever for more than a day or two
• the pain is very intense
• a person with a suspected sinus infection has a weakened immune system due to a medical condition, drugs that suppress the immune system, or organ failure
Treatment depends on the cause. If bacteria caused the infection and symptoms are severe or last more than a week, a doctor might prescribe antibiotics. Antibiotics do not work for chronic sinusitis or a sinus infection caused by a virus.
A doctor may also prescribe steroids to relieve pain and pressure. These can help whether the infection is bacterial or viral, and may also help with chronic sinus infections.
If other treatments are not effective, a doctor may recommend surgery to treat severe, chronic sinusitis. Surgeons can move the bones to open the sinuses or fix problems with bones surrounding the sinuses.
Some people may also have nasal polyps that cause frequent sinus infections, and a surgeon can easily remove these. Most surgeries for chronic sinusitis are outpatient procedures, which means a person can go home the same day as surgery.
The outlook for most cases of sinusitis is good. Sinus infections often clear up on their own within a week or two. When they do not, the infection may be bacterial, and antibiotics can help.
Although rare, fungal sinus infections can be severe and hard to treat.
With proper medical care, most people with sinusitis recover well. However, if the infection does not get better after 3 months, a doctor might refer someone to an ear, nose, and throat specialist, who can identify and treat the underlying cause of chronic sinusitis.
What home remedies can relieve sinus pressure?
• Neti pot
• Essential oils
A person can treat sinus pressure with medication, but plenty of home remedies may also help to ease symptoms and speed up recovery.
The sinuses are lined with a type of skin called mucous membrane. This membrane protects the body by producing mucus, which catches dirt and other particles that might otherwise cause illness.
The lining of the sinuses can swell if a person has an allergic reaction or infection. Swelling may lead to a feeling of pressure around the nose, cheeks, and above the eyes. These areas of the face may feel painful or tender.
Infections or allergies can lead to uncomfortable pressure in the sinuses. Clearing the nose can help to ease this symptom.
Below are natural alternatives to over-the-counter medications for sinus pressure.
Saline nasal spray
Saline nasal sprays are a popular remedy for sinus pressure and can be made at home.
Inhaling saline solution can help to clear a blocked nose.
A saline solution can easily be made at home using sterile water, salt, and baking soda. Combine the following ingredients:
• 1/4 pint of clean water
• 1/4 teaspoon (tsp) of salt
• 1/4 tsp of baking soda
Sniff this into the nose from cupped palms, one nostril at a time.
Alternately, use a clean, dry spray bottle. Gently insert the nozzle into a nostril and spray in the solution. Repeat two to three times per day.
Some people use neti pots to rinse out the nose, which helps to keep the mucous membrane moist and relieve pressure in the sinuses. The device looks like a small pot with a long spout. They can be purchased online.
Here is how to use a neti pot:
• wash the hands
• fill the pot with sterile water
• lean directly over a sink
• tilt the head sideways
• gently insert the spout into the highest nostril
• breathe through the mouth
• pour water into the nostril
Water will run from one nostril to the other, which should flush out pollen, bacteria, and other debris. A person should repeat this process on both nostrils.
It is essential to use sterile or distilled water, which can be bought at a drugstore, not tap water. Alternately, boil water and allow it to cool.
Using steam to open the passages in the nose can help to relieve sinus pressure.
Steam inhalation is easy to do at home. Boil water, pour it into a large bowl and lean over, so the face is directly above the water. Cover the head with a towel, and breathe through the nose.
Massaging pressure points at the base of the skull and top of the neck may help.
Acupressure is a key part of traditional Chinese medicine. It involves applying pressure to specific points in the body, to relieve pain or symptoms of illness. Scientists are not clear on whether acupressure works, but it may ease some symptoms.
Acupressure has long been used to treat colds, types of flu, and sinus problems. It can be done at home or by a professional practitioner.
Be careful not to apply too much pressure, causing pain or discomfort.
Here is how to use acupressure for sinus pressure:
• link the fingers of both hands together, forming the shape of a cup
• use the linked hands to cradle the back of the head, where the neck and skull join
• extend the thumbs and find the dips on either side of the spine
• use the thumbs to massage the area in small circles
• relax, breathing slowly and deeply
• do this for 4 to 5 seconds at a time
Using the fingertips to massage the cheeks and the bridge of the nose may also help to relieve pressure. This massage should be firm, but gentle.
Any time a person is unwell, it is essential to keep the body hydrated.
Keep the mucous membranes in the sinuses moist by drinking plenty of fluids. This helps them to work properly.
Water, fruit juices, and herbal teas are good alternatives to tea and coffee.
Warm washcloth compression
Applying heat to the sinus area can also help to relieve pressure. One of the easiest ways to do this is using a warm washcloth.
Run a clean washcloth under reasonably hot water and wring it out. Fold it, and lay it across the bridge of the nose and cheeks for a few minutes.
Menthol oil is thought to help open the nasal pasages, although research has not supported this.
Essential oils are natural oils derived from plants. The American Sinus Institute recommend using some essential oils to relieve sinus pressure.
Menthol creates a sensation that the nasal passages are opening.
Add a few drops of the oil to hot water, and gently breathe in the steam through the nose.
There are some anesthetic properties, but no scientific evidence proves that menthol causes the nasal passages to open.
Essential oils, including menthol, are available online. People should be sure to buy these oils from trusted sources, however.
Rest and relax
Concentrating on work or studies can be difficult for a person with sinus pressure. Taking a break and getting plenty of rest can help the body to recover.
What is the outlook for sinus pressure?
If caused by an infection, such as sinusitis, the pressure should go away within a few weeks.
If caused by an allergy, sinus pressure may come and go. Taking antihistamines before coming into contact with an allergen, such as grass or pet fur, can prevent sinus pressure.
The natural remedies above can help to relieve sinus pressure and related discomfort. They can also help to speed recovery.
However, home remedies may not always work. If an infection has not gone away within 2 to 3 weeks, people should see a doctor for advice and treatment.
What to do about a sinus headache
• Sinus headache vs. migraine
Sinus headaches affect the area around the nose. They usually follow an infection and cause pain across the bridge of the nose and the cheeks. They can also be the result of allergies.
Sinuses are spaces in the bones of the face. There are four pairs across the cheeks, bridge of the nose, and above the eyes. Scientists are not entirely sure what role the sinuses play in the body. It is possible that they make the skull lighter, prevent heat from escaping the head, or help make the voice louder.
Treatment for a sinus headache depends on the underlying cause. A mild sinus headache can often be treated at home.
Fast facts on sinus headache:
• The primary symptom of a sinus headache is a pain in the sinuses.
• Treatment for a sinus headache will usually target the underlying cause.
• Sinus headaches are usually caused by an infection or an allergy.
Sinus headache symptoms
An infection or allergy may cause a sinus headache.
The sinuses are lined with a membrane similar to the lining of the nose. If a person has an infection or allergy, this membrane can swell up and cause a sinus headache.
A person may feel this pain in their cheeks, the bridge of their nose, and in the area above the nose.
Sometimes, these areas might look swollen. A sinus headache might affect one or both sides of the face.
Sinus headaches are usually caused by an infection, such as sinusitis. A person who develops sinusitis is likely to have other symptoms, including:
• a blocked nose
• a lessened sense of smell
• green or yellow mucus when a person blows their nose
Some people find that the pain feels worse after coughing, leaning over, or bending down.
If a sinus headache is not causing too much pain, a person may be able to manage it at home. A person should rest, drink plenty of fluids, and take painkillers.
However, anyone experiencing severe pain from a sinus headache should see a doctor. A person may also need to seek medical advice if:
• the pain worsens
• symptoms do not get better after a week
• painkillers do not help
For a sinus headache caused by sinusitis, a doctor may prescribe decongestants or antibiotics.
A sinus headache caused by an allergy will usually be treated with a nasal spray that contains antihistamines or steroids.
If a person repeatedly gets a sinus headache or has sinusitis for 3 months, a doctor may refer them to an ear, nose, and throat specialist.
The specialist will likely ask about symptoms, take a medical history, and examine the person’s head, nose, and face. They may also take images of the head with an X-ray or MRI scan.
Some people may require surgery to widen the sinuses. The procedure might involve removing a small amount of tissue from the sinuses or inflating a tiny balloon device within the sinuses to widen the sinus passages.
The sinuses may be opened up by breathing in steam.
A person who has a sinus headache caused by sinusitis might be able to treat it with home remedies. These treatments may not work if the pain is very severe, or symptoms last for over a week, however.
Breathing in steam
Breathing in steam can help to open up the nasal passages and sinuses, which may help to relieve pressure and pain:
• boil some water and allow it to cool slightly
• pour the water into a large heatproof bowl
• lean the face over the bowl
• cover the head with a small towel
• breathe slowly in and out through the nose
Cleaning the nose with a salt water solution
Using a salt water solution can help to decongest the nose:
• boil roughly 1 pint of water and allow to cool
• dissolve 1 teaspoon (tsp) of salt and 1 tsp of baking soda in the water
• wash hands with soap and water
• pour a small amount of the solution into a cupped palm
• sniff the water into the nostril, one at a time
• repeat until the nose feels clearer
A warm washcloth
Holding a warm washcloth to the face can ease pain and pressure:
• run a clean washcloth under hot water and wring out
• apply across the bridge of the nose and cheeks
• hold the washcloth in place for a few minutes
• repeat several times per day
Sinus headache vs. migraine
Research by the American Migraine Foundation found that a migraine is often mistaken for a sinus headache.
A sinus headache and a migraine have some symptoms in common, including:
• feeling pressure in the face and forehead
• pain that worsens when moving the head
• a blocked nose
There are different treatments for a migraine and sinus headaches, so it is important to get the correct diagnosis.
If a person has symptoms of sinusitis followed by pain and pressure in the face, this is probably a sinus headache. If a headache lasts for more than a week or is not cured by antibiotics, it may be a migraine.
A person who has a migraine is likely to experience other symptoms that do not appear with a sinus headache.
• being sensitive to light
• a pulsing or a throbbing headache
How do allergies cause headaches?
People with hay fever may feel pain in the same area as a sinus headache.
Allergies, particularly hay fever, can cause headaches.
A person experiencing a headache caused by an allergy will probably experience pain in the same area of the face as a sinus headache.
This is because allergies can cause a blocked or inflamed nose.
A person who has a headache caused by an allergy may experience other symptoms, such as:
• red or watering eyes
• an itchy mouth
A doctor or allergist should be able to find the cause of the allergy and suggest ways to manage and treat it.
A person who experiences headaches regularly may have a medication headache. This can happen when someone takes too many painkillers or uses pain relief medication for an extended period.
Sinusitis is a primary cause of a sinus headache. Some forms of the condition can be severe if left untreated. This is because the sinuses are close to the brain and any infection could pass to the central nervous system.
If a sinus headache does not improve within a week, a person should seek medical advice. Sinus headaches are usually not serious and can often be treated at home.
It is common for a person to mistake a migraine for a sinus headache. The two conditions require different treatment, so a person should consult a doctor if they have questions about their symptoms.
• Headache / Migraine
• Infectious Diseases / Bacteria / Viruses