photo of woman with sinus pain touching her sinus area on her face

What is sinusitis?

Sinusitis occurs when your nasal sinuses become congested just like your nose does when reacting to allergens, irritants or respiratory infections. The congestion causes nasal tissues to be inflamed and swollen, producing even more mucus.

As mucus accumulates in your sinuses, it provides a breeding ground for germs to grow. Infection can set in, causing sinus pressure and pain – otherwise known as sinusitis.

Who has sinusitis?

Sinusitis affects 31 million people in the United States every year. It’s a condition that often develops as a complication after a cold or the flu. People who have asthma, allergies or weak immune systems are at high risk for sinus infections.

What are the symptoms of sinusitis? 

Sinus infection symptoms include:

  • Sinus headache
  • Postnasal drip
  • Congestion
  • Green or gray nasal discharge
  • A feeling of pressure on the face
  • Cough
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of sense of smell
  • Upper tooth pain
  • Sometimes low-grade fever

Are the symptoms of sinusitis in young children different?

Young children have immature immune systems and are more prone to infections of the nose, sinus and ears, especially in the first several years of life. Symptoms that may indicate your child has a sinus infection include:

  • A “cold” lasting more than 10-14 days, sometimes with a low-grade fever
  • Thick yellow-green nasal drainage
  • Postnasal drip, sometimes leading to or exhibited as sort throat, cough, bad breath, nausea and/or vomiting
  • Headache, usually in children age 6 or older
  • Irritability or fatigue
  • Swelling around the eyes

What causes sinus pain?

Sinuses become congested just like your nose does when reacting to allergens, irritants or respiratory infections. Tissues become swollen and produce extra mucus. If the cilia (tiny hairs in your respiratory tract) can’t move the thick mucus out, it begins to accumulate. Trapped mucus provides a safe haven for germs or fungi to grow. Infection sets in, causing sinus pressure and pain.

Differences in air pressure can also cause sinus pain. When your sinuses are clogged, air can’t pass in and out easily and any atmospheric changes in pressure – whether from driving through the mountains or flying in a plane – can create a painful pressure build-up.

How is sinusitis treated?

The goal of sinusitis treatment is to reduce the inflammation. The sinus infection causes inflammation.

Many cases of sinusitis clear up by themselves within a week. However, it’s best to see a doctor if symptoms continue for seven days or longer.

Antibiotics are standard treatments for bacterial sinus infections that persist beyond 7-10 days. They are designed to attack the bacteria that caused the infection. 

Prescription and over-the-counter medications can provide relief from lingering symptoms of sinusitis:

  • Nasal corticosteroid sprays reduce inflammation and swelling caused by allergies or nasal polyps (tissue growth that can block nasal passages). They start working quickly but take 4-5 days to reach full effect.
  • Nasal decongestant sprays, pills and liquids help shrink inflamed and swollen nasal passages, but also allow mucus to flow out more easily. Decongestant sprays should not be used for more than 3-5 days because long-term use can actually increase congestion.
  • Antihistamines fight the inflammation caused by an allergic reaction.

If your sinusits symptoms last 12 weeks or longer or recur 4-6 times during the year, this indicates chronic sinusitis, which requires more comprehensive treatment or a need for sinus surgery to address a blockage.

How is sinusitis prevented?

Taking care of your sinuses will help eliminate sinus infections that can cause symptoms and asthma flares. You can prevent most sinus problems by avoiding illnesses and allergies that cause sinus inflammation, keeping nasal mucus thin and cilia moving and washing your nasal passages regularly.

To prevent sinus issues:

Minimize respiratory infections

  • Wash hands often and keep them out of your mouth and eyes.
  • Get an annual flu shot.

Control allergies

  • Consult with your doctor to identify what you are allergic to, and then take steps to reduce your exposure.
  • Use allergy medications as prescribed by your doctor. 
  • Consider treating hard-to-control allergies with immunotherapy to build tolerance to your allergens.

Apply moisture and heat

  • Place a warm, moist washcloth over your face several times a day to soften mucus.
  • Drink lots of fluids to keep your sinuses hydrated; avoid alcohol and caffeine, which can have a drying effect.
  • Inhale steam (from a hot shower) to moisten and soften mucus.
  • Keep nasal passages moist with saline sprays that can also rinse out mucus.

What is the relationship between sinusitis and asthma?

Sinusitis is often the fuel that stokes airway inflammation – in other words, asthma. When you can fix sinus infections you often fix the asthma.


Chart differentiating cold, flu, allergy, or sinusitis