What causes sinusitis, and what can you do about it?

What is sinusitis?

Sinus pressure is caused by swelling and inflammation of the tissue lining around the openings of your sinuses in your nasal cavity. This inflammation is triggered by allergies or viral infections, and the swelling may block these sinus openings. Your face may feel sensitive over your sinuses (like the maxillary sinuses under your cheeks or the frontal sinuses behind your forehead) or you may feel pain in your teeth.

You may also have a sore throat from drainage down the back of your throat, and you may have problems smelling or tasting food because your nose is congested. Sinus pressure can cause headaches that are typically positional in nature, so they may be worse when you bend over to pick something up off the floor or to tie your shoes. Finally you might have a fever with a viral infection along with purulent nasal discharge.

When do I need to see a doctor?

If the opening to your sinuses remains blocked for several days to weeks, you may develop what is called a secondary bacterial infection. This is when the blockage of the sinus openings allows fluid to build up and bacteria to flourish.

If your symptoms of sinus pressure last longer than 10 days, you may have a bacterial infection, and this is when you may want to see your doctor for evaluation. Antibiotics may help in some cases to treat these bacterial infections, and your doctor can determine if it will help you.

If you continue to have sinus pressure for more than four weeks, you may have what is called chronic sinusitis and should see a doctor to determine if you have an anatomical issue or nasal polyps blocking the openings to your sinuses. Your doctor may order imaging studies, like x-rays or CT scans, and may refer you to a specialist to determine if this is the case.

What can I do at home?

But, before you go to the doctor, there are many home remedies you can try to help relieve your symptoms. Simple remedies like hot tea or hot showers to increase the humidity of the air you breath can provide temporary relief. Humidifiers to moisten the air in your bedroom while you sleep may also help.

Saline sprays and nasal irrigation may also be helpful in thinning out mucus and washing away the allergens or viral particles causing inflammation. When using nasal irrigation, like a neti pot, make sure you use sterile water to prevent the introduction of bacteria or other parasites into your nasal cavities. The University of Michigan has information for making your own salt water wash for sinusitis

Finally, there are several over-the-counter (OTC) medications available to help with the symptoms of sinus pressure and sinusitis. These include:

  • Acetaminophen (Tylenol) or nonsteroidal antinflammatory drugs (NSAIDs, like ibuprofen) for pain and fever
  • Decongestants, like oxymetazoline spray (Afrin) or pseudoephedrine tablets — these help with decreasing swelling
  • Steroid sprays (like Flonase or Nasocort) — these also help with swelling and inflammation
  • Mucolytics, like guaifensin (Mucinex) — these help thin out mucus

When taking OTC medications, make sure you always read the labels and avoid any medications that could affect any conditions you have or interact with any other medications you may be taking. You can always ask your pharmacist or your doctor (or other health care provider) if you have questions.

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