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Sinus Infection Symptoms

Sinus infection symptoms can be painful to deal with.

Sinus infection symptoms include a thick nasal discharge or, a runny nose. [©Shutterstock, 2010]
©Shutterstock, 2010
Sinus infection symptoms include a thick nasal discharge or, a runny nose.

Sinus Infection Symptoms

A sinus infection, or sinusitis, occurs when the mucous membranes in the sinuses became inflamed, resulting in pressure and difficulty with breathing. Approximately 37 million Americans suffer from a sinus infection each year, according to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). A sinus infection usually strikes during the winter, and can linger for months if not properly treated.

Causes of Sinus Infections

Normal, healthy sinuses contain no bacteria, viral or fungal organisms (they are sterile), which allows for easier breathing and the proper passage of mucus. The Cleveland Clinic notes that conditions that cause poor nasal drainage such as the common cold and nasal polyps can cause sinus blockage, which may lead to a sinus infection if the person ignores treatment. When the sinuses become inflamed, air and mucus get trapped within the sinuses. As a result of poor nasal drainage, healthy bacteria from the nose and throat can multiply within the sinuses and cause an infection. People with nasal polyps and a deviated septum are often at risk for sinus infections because these conditions result in narrowed openings within the sinuses, making it harder for mucus to drain. Finally, environmental factors such as dust or pollen allergies, air pollution and smoke sometimes contribute to a sinus infection if these irritants inflame the linings of the nose.

Types of Sinus Infections

Health experts divide sinus infections into four categories of severity, according to the American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology(AAAAI):

  • An acute sinus infection lasts for up to 4 weeks, and usually develops from a common cold or allergies.
  • Subacute sinus infections share the same symptoms as an acute sinus infection, but lasts 4 to 8 weeks.
  • Chronic sinus infections last longer than 8 weeks with symptoms that are similar to bronchial asthma.
  • Recurrent sinusitis is characterized by at least three bouts of acute sinusitis a year.

Sinus Infection Symptoms

The swelling caused by a sinus infection can cause pain and discomfort. The severity and location of pain varies based on which of the four sinus cavities are infected. Sufferers of an infection in the frontal sinuses commonly experience pain in the forehead. When the ethmoid sinuses located near the inner corner of the eye are infected, the pain is normally between the eyes and can cause a loss of smell. An infection of the maxillary sinuses causes pain in the cheeks and upper jaw as well as tooth aches. A less common sphenoid sinus infection is characterized by head, neck and ear pain.

Other symptoms of a sinus infection include

  • Congestion
  • Thick nasal discharge
  • Fever
  • Drainage in the back of the throat
  • Cough
  • Bad breath
  • Fatigue

Sinus Infection vs. Common Cold

A sinus infection often follows an untreated cold, and symptoms of both conditions can be similar. Therefore, it can be difficult to tell whether the illness is a sinus infection or just a bad cold. While blocked sinuses lead to a bacterial sinus infection, the common cold is a viral infection that affects the nose and the throat, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Also known as an upper respiratory infection, the common cold can also cause sinus inflammation, which leads to congestion,runny nose, sore throat, coughing, nasal congestion and sinus pressure, post-nasal drip, sneezing, fatigue and headaches.

Although common cold and sinusitis symptoms are alike, there are some differences. Sinusitis sufferers deal with a fever in addition to the other symptoms, while a low-grade or no fever accompanies a cold. Clear nasal discharge is also associated with a cold, while thick, bloody, green or yellow discharge identifies a sinus infection.

Differences From Rhinitis

Allergic rhinitis, or hay fever, and non-allergic rhinitis share many of the same symptoms as sinusitis. The AAAAI defines rhinitis as an inflammation of the nasal lining as opposed to inflammation of the sinuses. Like a sinus infection, allergic and non-allergic rhinitis is characterized by runny nose, congestion and nasal drainage. However, seasonal allergies trigger allergic rhinitis, and lead to other symptoms such as sneezing, and itchy or watery eyes, throat and nose. Smoke and overuse of decongestants trigger non-allergic rhinitis, causing clear nasal discharge and nasal congestion. Untreated or recurring rhinitis, whether allergic or non-allergic, may cause a sinus infection.

Treating Sinusitis

Treatment options are based on whether a patient has an acute or a chronic condition. Recommended treatments for acute sinus infection include decongestants, pain relievers and antibiotics to clear up bacterial infections. Oral antibiotics or nasal steroid sprays are usually prescribed to treat chronic sinusitis. Vaporizers and saline nose drops can also be useful in treating chronic sinusitis.

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