You know the sickness scene: sweatpants, grimy ponytail, crumpled tissues strewn around the bed. When you’re knocked down by a nasty cold, there’s not much else you can do other than go to sleep and dream of your healthy days.
But how do you know if it's actually a run-of-the-mill cold virus or something a little more hardcore…like an actual sinus infection? (FYI: According to the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology, 31 million Americans get a sinus infection each year). Health spoke to medical experts to find out exactly what a sinus infection is, how long one typically lasts, and what you can do to help the stuffiness and sinus pain go away ASAP.
What's a sinus infection again?
So, a sinus infection is technically called sinusitis, and it's basically the term for when your sinuses are inflamed, according to the US National Library of Medicine (NLM). As for what those sinuses are, exactly, they're "pockets in the face next to the nose that are typically full of air," Philip Chen, MD, otolaryngologist with UT Health San Antonio, tells Health. "These pockets have a lining of mucosa that helps keep the sinus healthy," which is what becomes inflamed when the sinuses are infected.
Another type of sinus infection, rhinosinusitis, occurs when the lining of the sinus cavities ar swollen, along with the lining of the nasal cavity, says Dr. Chen.
As for what causes a sinus infection, it's typically a condition that blocks the sinuses, like a viral upper respiratory tract infection (aka, a cold), or allergies, Landon Duyka, MD, otolaryngologist at Northwestern Medicine Lake Forest Hospital, tells ?Health. The blockage ultimately "allows for an infection to develop and progress within the sinuses.”
What are the symptoms of a sinus infection?
So if you've ever had a sinus infection before, you know they feel pretty miserable: “The more common symptoms are nasal congestion, discolored mucous from the nose, post nasal drainage, facial pain, facial pressure, decreased smell and taste,” says Dr. Duyka. “Some patients also experience ear pain, upper tooth pain, sore throat, bad breath, and/or cough.”
But here's some quick advice: That whole thing about the color of your snot (like, if it's green or yellow) telling you whether or not you have a bacterial or viral infection? That's a myth, Donald Ford, MD, a family medicine physician at the Cleveland Clinic, tells Health. "The green-yellow color of mucus that can develop is a byproduct of our own white blood cells, which we use to fight any kind of infection, viral or bacterial, so we can’t tell the cause from the color of the mucus," she says. “When mucus is thick and dark it usually suggests some mild dehydration, and you should increase fluid intake and use lots of saline spray to keep the mucus thin.”
Okay, but how long does a sinus infection last?
Something else you need to know: There are two different types of sinusitis, acute and chronic sinusitis. Essentially, acute sinusitis is anything that lasts less than four weeks, says Dr. Ford, while chronic sinusitis lasts more than 12 weeks—but those are just ballparks.
“Typically acute sinusitis resolves by 10 days, but if not, then the possibility of a bacterial infection should be considered,” says Dr. Chen. “Getting one or 2 sinus infections a year is considered normal. More than 4 should prompt a visit to an ear, nose, and throat surgeon.”
However, if you have chronic sinusitis, it can last up to 3 months, and may be caused by environmental factors. “Chronic sinusitis may have a number of causes, but the most common cause is allergies,” says Dr. Ford. “Smoking causes impaired function of the cilia, part of the nasal membranes that remove mucus, and can contribute to developing chronic sinusitis.”
Well, how do you treat a sinus infection—and how can you prevent them?
If you suspect you have a sinus infection, before you head to the doctor, you can try some at-home and over-the-counter treatment options first, says Dr. Duyka. “Start with conservative management, with nasal irrigation 2-3 times a day,” he says. “You can use nasal steroid sprays such as Flonase, oral decongestants like Sudafed, and intranasal decongestants like Afrin for no more than three days."
If those remedies don't clear things up, or at least improve symptoms, you may have to resort to antibiotics. “For most patients, one should wait at least 10 days before starting antibiotics, and the doctor can help determine this,” says Dr. Chen. “Usually the sinusitis lasting less than 10 days is from a virus and antibiotics do not work against viruses."
For chronic sinusitis, surgery may be an option. “If the medications alone do not work, then sinus surgery may help to allow topical delivery of medications like topical steroids to the nasal and sinus lining,” adds Dr. Chen.
As for prevention techniques, Since most sinus infections are caused by viruses, using proper sanitation tips are the best way to prevent getting one. “Like with all viruses, the most effective prevention is careful hand washing,” says Dr. Ford.
And if you struggle with allergies, managing and treating those symptoms may also help prevent sinus infections. "Those with bad allergies might benefit from using nasal steroids and sinus irrigation techniques during symptomatic seasons,” says Dr. Chen. “Allergy treatments may help these patients as well.”
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