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Sinusitis: What you should know

Woman blowing her nose

You know the signs – the runny nose, sore throat, fever, headache, pressure under your eyes, nose or cheek area. It’s the dreaded sinus infection come to wreak havoc on your health once again.

A sinus infection, or sinusitis, is the irritation of the sinuses and nasal passages. “A sinus infection makes your nasal passages swell, trapping mucus and impairing the body’s normal removal of bacteria, which begin to multiply and invade the lining of the sinuses,” said Vicky Keys, M.S.N., assistant professor at the Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Nursing.

And they are not all the same. A sinus infection can be acute or chronic.

Acute sinus infections will occur no more than three times per year, last less than 10 days and medications are effective. Chronic sinus infections occur more frequently than four times per year and symptoms last more than 20 days. Chronic sinusitis may be caused by an infection as well, but also by growths in the sinuses called nasal polyps, a deviated nasal septum and facial trauma.

They can also be viral or bacterial.

“Sinusitis caused by bacteria will usually require antibiotics for treatment.,” Keys said. “If the infection is caused by a virus, however, antibiotics will not help.” Like a cold, the best thing to do is treat the symptoms and wait it out.

According to Keys, if in doubt, it’s important to visit your primary care physician, first, to find out exactly what’s going on and to get the very best treatment for your symptoms. “A sinus infection may respond to different types of treatments based on what sinuses are affected,” Keys said. “The most important thing is to be specific when describing your symptoms. This way, the physicians can pinpoint the best treatment for you.”

So what do you do while you await relief? Luckily, there are some simple steps you can take to reduce nasal passage swelling, and in turn, expedite recovery.

“The main goal in treating a sinus infection is to reduce the swelling or inflammation in the nasal passages and sinuses, cure the infection, and promote sinus drainage to alleviate pressure and open sinuses,” Keys said.

Here are a few quick tips to speed up the process:

  • Nasal irrigators. Saline nasal irrigators help wash out mucus and allergens, reducing stuffiness.
  • Decongestants. Over-the-counter decongestants can reduce the amount of mucus in the upper respiratory tract.
  • Painkillers. Over-the-counter pain medications, like acetaminophen, can reduce the ‘my head is going to explode’ feeling often associated with sinusitis.
  • Peppermint oil. A personal favorite of Keys, she suggests rubbing the oil under your nose to open airways and help you breathe better. You can also rub the oil on your temples and the back of your neck to help relieve headaches.
  • Humidifier. A humidifier can help to prevent buildup of thick, dried mucus in your airways that allow bacteria to thrive. If you don’t have a humidifier, taking a long, hot shower can also do the trick.
  • Rest and hydration. One of the most simple and effective things you can do for a sinus infection—or any illness—is to take it easy and drink lots of fluids.

“Don’t let a sinus infection get the best of you this fall and winter. As soon as you begin to exhibit symptoms, see your health care provider so you can get to feeling better sooner,” Keys said.

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