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How to know if you have sinusitis

Published: July 18, 2023

Written by: Ashley Lauretta

Young woman with glasses sitting with her head in her hands.

Understand the signs and symptoms of sinus infections — and learn how to find relief at home.

In this article:

For those who’ve suffered from sinusitis (commonly referred to as a sinus infection), the symptoms are all too familiar: seemingly unrelenting nasal congestion, headaches and facial pain or pressure. In fact, sinusitis is one of the most common reasons why adults seek care from health care professionals.

How long does sinusitis last? Sometimes sinus infections resolve on their own, and about 70 percent go away within two weeks without antibiotics. If not, options for sinusitis treatments at home are widely available. They may help relieve symptoms and reduce severity — so you can start on a path to feeling better.

What is sinusitis?

Most people know that sinuses — pockets of air in your skull — are located around the cheeks. They’re also found behind the forehead, nasal bones and eyes. When those air-filled areas fill with fluid, either from a cold, allergies or some other cause, bacteria, viruses and other germs can then take hold and multiply, causing a sinus infection. The result: swollen and inflamed sinus cavities.

Although children’s sinuses aren’t fully developed, kids can still get sinus infections, and those who do are more likely to continue getting sinus infections as adults. Acute sinus infections are more common in adults than children, however.

The underlying cause of sinus infections can vary widely, but in most cases, a virus is to blame. While sinusitis originates in the sinus cavities themselves, an infection can create a wide range of symptoms affecting other parts of the body.

What are the symptoms of sinusitis?

According to Duyen Nguyen, DO, an allergist at Memorial Hermann in Houston, Texas, the most common symptoms of sinusitis include:

  • Cough
  • Facial pain and pressure
  • Nasal congestion
  • Postnasal drip (stuffy nose)
  • Thick, yellow-green nasal discharge (runny nose)

Dr. Nguyen says in some cases, sinus infections can also lead to:

  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Halitosis (bad breath)
  • Loss of smell and taste
  • Nausea

A number of sinusitis symptoms are similar to the symptoms of COVID-19. If you’re unsure whether you have sinusitis vs COVID-19, it’s a good idea to take a COVID test.

Types of sinusitis

The three categories of sinus infections are based on the duration of the infection:

  • Acute sinusitis (less than 4 weeks, although symptoms may go away in 10 days)
  • Subacute sinusitis (4 to 12 weeks)
  • Chronic sinusitis (12 or more weeks)

Most patients will be diagnosed with acute sinusitis, which is usually caused by a viral infection. However, if symptoms last longer than 10 days, a secondary bacterial infection is often diagnosed. Chronic sinusitis has several causes and might be triggered by seasonal allergies or respiratory tract infections (viral or bacterial). It can also occur due to nasal polyps (tissue growth in the nose), a deviated septum (when the wall between your nasal passages blocks the airway) and other medical conditions that affect the immune system.

Is sinusitis contagious?

When a sinus infection’s root cause is a virus, you can spread the underlying virus to others. However, while others may catch that virus, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it will develop into sinusitis for them.

Symptom relief support options for sinusitis

If you go to the doctor for your sinus infection, you may be prescribed antibiotics. In fact, sinusitis is a leading cause of antibiotic prescriptions in the United States. But thanks to the viral nature of the majority of cases, they may go away on their own. In the meantime, there are home remedies for sinusitis that can help your symptoms improve.

If your symptoms persist, Dr. Nguyen recommends applying a warm, damp cloth to your face and forehead to help relieve pain caused by sinus pressure.

“Patients should contact a doctor if symptoms last more than 10 days or sinus symptoms get worse after five days with a fever; pain or swelling in the face or eye; redness on the cheeks or around the eyes; severe headaches; confusion; or a stiff neck,” says Dr. Nguyen.

In more serious cases, your doctor will help pinpoint triggers — such as specific allergens — depending on the category of sinusitis and specific diagnosis. If treatments fail and sinusitis is chronic, Dr. Nguyen says surgery may be recommended.

This content is for informational purposes only and is not medical advice. Consult with your health care provider before taking any vitamins or supplement, and prior to beginning or changing any health care practices.