Sinusitis is an inflammation or infection of the sinuses, the air-filled chambers in the skull that are located around the nose. Symptoms of sinusitis include thick nasal discharge, facial pain or pressure, fever, and reduced sense of smell. Depending on how long these symptoms last, sinusitis is classified as acute, subacute, chronic, or recurrent. Viruses are the most common cause of acute sinusitis, but bacteria are responsible for most of the serious cases.
Non-Drug Treatment of Sinusitis
Home remedies such as saline (salt) washes or sprays are helpful for removing mucus and relieving congestion. Steam inhalation is also beneficial. Patients with sinusitis should drink plenty of fluids to avoid dehydration. Water, which helps lubricate the mucous membranes, is the best fluid to drink.
Drug Treatment of Sinusitis
Medication depends on the type of sinusitis and its cause. Non-prescription pain relievers such as acetaminophen and ibuprofen can help mild-to-moderate pain symptoms. Decongestants may help relieve congestion, but they do not cure sinusitis. Antihistamines can dry the mucus and sometimes worsen the condition. Cough or cold medication is not recommended for children younger than age 4 years.
Because many cases of acute sinusitis resolve within two weeks with non-prescription treatments and home remedies, doctors generally wait at least 7 - 14 days before prescribing an antibiotic.
For chronic sinusitis, antibiotics and nasal corticosteroids are the main treatments, but this condition is difficult to treat and does not always respond to these drugs. Other drugs may also be prescribed. If drugs are ineffective, some patients with chronic sinusitis may need surgery.
New Guidelines for Managing Acute Bacterial Sinusitis
In 2012, the Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA) released updated guidelines for recognizing and treating acute bacterial sinusitis. Bacterial sinusitis can be difficult to distinguish from sinusitis caused by a viral infection. It is important to know the difference because viral infections do not respond to antibiotic treatment. The IDSA emphasizes that bacteria cause only 2 – 10% of acute sinusitis cases. Viruses, such as those from the common cold, are the main cause of acute sinusitis. Most cases of acute sinusitis resolve on their own within a few weeks.
The IDSA’s guidelines recommend diagnosing a bacterial rather than viral cause based on how symptoms start, how they progress, and how long they last. When an antibiotic is prescribed, the IDSA recommends amoxicillin-clavulanate as a first choice. Many types of antibiotics formerly used for acute bacterial sinusitis are no longer effective or recommended.
Four pairs of sinuses, known as the paranasal air sinuses, connect to the nasal passages (the two airways running through the nose):
Sinusitis occurs if obstruction or congestion cause the paranasal sinus openings to become blocked. When the sinus openings become blocked or too much mucus builds up in the chambers, bacteria and other germs can grow more easily, leading to infection and inflammation.
Sinusitis is classified as acute, subacute, or chronic, or recurrent. The classification is based on how long symptoms last:
Acute sinusitis can be caused by viral, bacterial, or fungal infections. Allergans and environmental irritants are other possible causes. In most cases, acute sinusitis is caused by an upper respiratory tract viral infection, such as the common cold, and usually resolves on its own.
Chronic sinusitis refers to long-term swelling and inflammation of the sinuses. Chronic sinusitis can result from recurring episodes of acute sinusitis or it can be caused by other health conditions like asthma and allergic rhinitis, immune disorders, or structural abnormalities in the nose like deviated septum or nasal polyps.
Viruses. Viruses cause 90 – 98% of acute sinusitis cases. The typical process leading to acute sinusitis starts with the common cold virus. Most people with colds have inflamed sinuses. These inflammations are typically brief and mild and very few people with colds develop true sinusitis. Instead, colds and flu set the stage by causing inflammation and congestion in the nasal passages (called rhinitis), leading to obstruction in the sinuses. Rhinitis always accompanies sinusitis, which is why sinusitis is also called rhinosinusitis.
Bacteria. A small percentage of cases of acute sinusitis, and possibly chronic sinusitis, are caused by bacteria. Bacteria are normally present in the nasal passages and throat and are normally harmless. However, when a cold or other viral upper respiratory infection blocks the nasal passage and prevents the sinuses from draining, bacteria can multiply within the mucus lining of the sinuses, causing sinusitis. Streptococcus pneumonia, Haemophilius influenzae, and Moraxella catarrhalis (a common cause of childhood illnesses) are the bacteria most often linked to acute sinusitis. These bacteria plus other strains, such as Staphylococcus aureus, are also associated with chronic sinusitis. (The role of bacteria in chronic sinusitis is still being debated.) Bacterial sinusitis usually causes more severe symptoms and lasts longer than viral sinusitis.
Fungi. An allergic reaction to fungi is a cause of some cases of chronic rhinosinusitis. Aspergillus is the most common fungus associated with sinusitis. Fungal infections tend to occur in people with sinusitis who also have diabetes, leukemia, AIDS, or other conditions that impair the immune system. Fungal infections can also occur in patients with healthy immune systems, but they are far less common.
Allergies, asthma, and sinusitis often overlap. Seasonal allergic rhinitis and other allergies that cause mucus blockage may predispose people to develop sinusitis. Many of the immune factors observed in people with chronic sinusitis resemble those that appear in allergic rhinitis, suggesting that in some people sinusitis is due to an allergic response. Asthma is also strongly associated with sinusitis and many people have both conditions. Some studies suggest that sinusitis may worsen asthma symptoms.
Chronic sinusitis and recurrent acute sinusitis are also assocated with disorders that weaken the immune system or produce inflammation in the airways or persistent thickened stagnant mucus. These conditions include diabetes, AIDS, cystic fibrosis, Kartagener's syndrome, and Wegener's granulomatosis.
Structural abnormalities in the nose can cause blockage and thereby increase the risk for chronic sinusitis. Some abnormalities include:
Sinusitis is one of the most common diseases in the United States, affecting about 30 million Americans each year.
Before the immune system matures, all infants are susceptible to respiratory infections. Babies catch a cold about every 1 - 2 months. Young children are prone to colds and may have 8 - 12 bouts every year. Smaller nasal and sinus passages make children more vulnerable to upper respiratory tract infections than older children and adults. Ear infections such as otitis media are also associated with sinusitis. Nevertheless, true sinusitis is very rare in children under 9 years of age.
The elderly are at specific risk for sinusitis. Their nasal passages tend to dry out with age. In addition, the cartilage supporting the nasal passages weakens, causing airflow changes. They also have diminished cough and gag reflexes and weakened immune systems and are at greater risk for serious respiratory infections than are young and middle-aged adults.
People with asthma or allergies are at higher risk for non-infectious inflammation in the sinuses. The risk for sinusitis is higher in patients with severe asthma. People with a combination of polyps in the nose, asthma, and sensitivity to aspirin (called Samter's, or ASA, triad) are at very high risk for chronic or recurrent acute sinusitis.
Some hospitalized patients are at higher risk for sinusitis, particularly those with:
A number of medical conditions put people at risk for chronic sinusitis. They include:
Dental Problems. Bacteria associated with infections from dental problems or procedures can trigger cases of maxillary sinusitis.
Changes in Atmospheric Pressure. People who experience changes in atmospheric pressure, such as while flying, climbing to high altitudes, or swimming, risk sinus blockage and therefore an increased risk of developing sinusitis. (Swimming increases the risk for sinusitis for other reasons, as well.)
Cigarette Smoke and Other Air Pollutants. Air pollution from industrial chemicals, cigarette smoke, or other pollutants can damage the cilia responsible for moving mucus through the sinuses. Whether air pollution is an important cause of sinusitis and, if so, which pollutants are critical factors, is still not clear. Cigarette smoke, for example, poses a small but increased risk for sinusitis in adults. Second-hand smoke does not appear to have any significant effect on adult sinuses, although it may pose a risk for sinusitis in children.
Bacterial sinusitis is nearly always harmless (although uncomfortable and sometimes even very painful). If an episode becomes severe, antibiotics generally eliminate further problems. In rare cases, however, sinusitis can be very serious.
Osteomyelitis. Adolescent males with acute frontal sinusitis are at particular risk for severe problems. One important complication is infection of the bones (osteomyelitis) of the forehead and other facial bones. In such cases, the patient usually experiences headache, fever, and a soft swelling over the bone known as Pott's puffy tumor.
Infection of the Eye Socket. Infection of the eye socket, or orbital infection, which causes swelling and subsequent drooping of the eyelid, is a rare but serious complication of ethmoid sinusitis. In these cases, the patient loses movement in the eye, and pressure on the optic nerve can lead to vision loss, which is sometimes permanent. Fever and severe illness are usually present.
Blood Clot. Blood clots are another danger, although rare, from ethmoid or frontal sinusitis. If a blood clot forms in the sinus area around the front and top of the face, symptoms are similar to orbital infection. In addition, the pupil may be fixed and dilated. Although symptoms usually begin on one side of the head, the process usually spreads to both sides.
Brain Infection. The most dangerous complication of sinusitis, particularly frontal and sphenoid sinusitis, is the spread of infection by anaerobic bacteria to the brain, either through the bones or blood vessels. Abscesses, meningitis, and other life-threatening conditions may result. In such cases, the patient may experience mild personality changes, headache, altered consciousness, visual problems, and, finally, seizures, coma, and death.
The relationship between sinusitis and asthma is unclear. A number of theories have been proposed for a causal or shared association between sinusitis and asthma. Successful treatment of both allergic rhinitis and chronic sinusitis in children who also have asthma may reduce symptoms of asthma. It is particularly important to treat any coexisting bacterial sinusitis in people with asthma. Patients might not respond to asthma treatments unless the infection is cleared up first.
Pain, fatigue, and other symptoms of chronic sinusitis can have significant effects on the quality of life. This condition can cause emotional distress, impair normal activity, and reduce attendance at work or school. According to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology, the average patient with sinusitis misses about 4 work days a year, and sinusitis is one of the top 10 medical conditions that most adversely affect American employers.
Sinus symptoms are very common during a cold or the flu, but in most cases they are due to the effects of the infecting virus and resolve when the infection does. General symptoms of acute sinusitis (both viral and bacterial) include:
It is important to differentiate between inflamed sinuses associated with cold or flu virus and sinusitis caused by bacteria but it can be difficult to do so. In general, with viral sinusitis symptoms usually last 7 - 10 days and then improve. Acute bacterial sinusitis, in contrast to viral sinusitis, usually takes one of the following three paths:
If symptoms suggest acute bacterial sinusitis, antibiotic treatment is warranted. Bacterial sinusitis is not as common as viral sinusitis, but bacteria are responsible for most of the serious cases of sinusitis.
In children, the most common signs and symptoms of bacterial sinusitis are cough, nasal discharge, and fever. Bad breath is also a common symptom in young children. Headache and facial pain are rare.
With chronic sinusitis:
Rare complications of sinusitis can produce additional symptoms, which may be severe or even life threatening. Symptoms indicating a medical emergency include:
Allergies. Symptoms of both sinusitis and allergic rhinitis include nasal obstruction and congestion. The conditions often occur together. People with allergies and no sinus infection may have:
Migraine and Other Headaches. Many primary headaches, particularly migraine or cluster, may closely resemble sinus headache. Migraine and sinus headaches may even coexist in many cases. Sinus headaches are usually more generalized than migraines, but it is often difficult to tell them apart, particularly if headache is the only symptom of sinusitis.
Trigeminal Neuralgia. In some cases, headache that persists after successful treatment of chronic sinusitis may be due to neuralgia (nerve-related pain) in the face.
Other Conditions. A number of other conditions can mimic sinusitis. They include:
Patients should see a doctor if they have sinusitis symptoms that do not clear up within a few days, are severe, or are accompanied by high fever or acute illness.
The first goal in diagnosing sinusitis is to rule out other possible causes of symptoms, and then determine:
Medical History. The patient should describe all symptoms such as nasal discharge and specific pain in the face and head, including eye and tooth pain.
After assessing symptoms, the doctor should take a thorough medical history of the patient:
The doctor will press the forehead and cheekbones to check for tenderness and other signs of sinusitis, including yellow to yellow-green nasal discharge. The doctor will also check the inside of the nasal passages using a device with a bright light to check the mucus and look for any structural abnormalities.
Nasal endoscopy, or rhinoscopy, involves the insertion of a flexible tube with a fiber-optic light on the end into the nasal passage. Rhinoscopy allows detection of even very small abnormalities in the nasal passages and can evaluate structural problems of the nasal septum, as well as the presence of soft tissue masses such as polyps. It may also identify small amounts of pus draining from the opening of a sinus. Bacterial cultures can also be taken from samples removed using endoscopy. (Endoscopy is also used for treating sinusitis.)
Computer Tomography. Computed tomography (CT) scanning is the best method for viewing the paranasal sinuses. There is little relationship, however, between symptoms in most patients and findings of abnormalities on a CT scan. CT scans are recommended for acute sinusitis only if there is a severe infection, complications, or a high risk for complications. CT scans are useful for diagnosing chronic or recurrent acute sinusitis and for surgeons as a guide during surgery. They show inflammation and swelling and the extent of the infection, including in deeply hidden air chambers missed by x-rays and nasal endoscopy. They may also detect the presence of fungal infections.
X-Rays. Until the availability of endoscopy and CT scans, x-rays were commonly used. They are not as accurate, however, in identifying abnormalities in the sinuses. For example, more than one x-ray is needed for diagnosing frontal and sphenoid sinusitis. X-rays do not detect ethmoid sinusitis as accurately. This area can be the primary site of an infection that has spread to the maxillary or frontal sinuses.
Magnetic Resonance Imaging. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is not as effective as CT in defining the paranasal anatomy and therefore is not typically used to image the sinuses for suspected sinusitis. MRI is also more expensive than CT. However, it can help rule out fungal sinusitis and may help differentiate between inflammatory disease, malignant tumors, and complications within the skull. It may also be useful for showing soft tissue involvement.
Sinus puncture with bacterial culture is the gold standard for diagnosing a bacterial sinus infection. It is invasive and is performed only when patients are at risk of having unusual infections or serious complications, or if antibiotics have not worked. Sinus puncture involves using a needle to withdraw a small amount of fluid from the sinuses. It requires a local anesthetic and is performed by a specialist. The fluid is then cultured to determine what type of bacteria is causing sinusitis.
The best way to prevent sinusitis is to avoid colds and influenza. If you are unable to avoid them, the next best way to prevent sinusitis is to effectively treat colds and influenza.
Colds and flu are spread primarily when an infected person coughs or sneezes near someone else. A very common method for transmitting a cold is by shaking hands. Everyone should always wash their hands before eating and after going outside. Ordinary soap is sufficient. Waterless hand cleaners that contain an alcohol-based gel are also effective for everyday use and may even kill cold viruses. (They are less effective, however, if extreme hygiene is required. In such cases, alcohol-based rinses are needed.) Antibacterial soaps add little protection, particularly against viruses. Wiping surfaces with a solution that contains one part bleach to 10 parts water is very effective in killing viruses.
Influenza Vaccine. Because influenza viruses change from year to year, influenza vaccines are redesigned annually to match the anticipated viral strains. Doctors recommend that people receive annual influenza vaccinations in October or November.
Flu vaccines are now recommended for virtually everyone over 6 months of age, except those allergic to eggs or other vaccine compounds.
Pneumococcal Vaccines. The pneumococcal vaccine protects against S. pneumoniae (also called pneumococcal) bacteria, the most common bacterial cause of respiratory infections. Pneumococcal vaccination is recommended for all children and for all adults age 65 and older. The vaccine is also recommended for adults younger than age 65 who have health conditions that compromise their immune system or lower their their risk for infection as well as smokers and patients with asthma. Several effective vaccines are available, one called a 23-valent polysaccharide vaccine (Pneumovax, Pnu-Immune) for adults and a 13-valent conjugate vaccine (Prevnar 13) for infants and children younger than 2 years. A 13-valent conjugate vaccine was approved for adults in 2012 and doctors are planning new recommendations for its use.
The primary objectives for treatment of sinusitis are reduction of swelling, eradication of infection, draining of the sinuses, and ensuring that the sinuses remain open. Fewer than half of patients reporting symptoms of sinusitis need aggressive treatment. Home remedies can be very useful.
Bacterial sinusitis, which is treated with antibiotics, accounts for only 2 - 10% of acute rhinosinusitis cases. Most cases of sinusitis are caused by viruses, which do not respond to antibiotics. Acute viral sinusitis generally clears up on its own within 7 - 10 days.
It is important to reserve antibiotics for illnesses caused by bacteria. The intense and widespread use of antibiotics has led to a serious global problem of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
Treatment of Acute Sinusitis.
Treatment of Chronic Sinusitis.
Home remedies that open and hydrate sinuses are often the only treatment necessary for mild sinusitis that is not accompanied by signs of acute infection.
A nasal wash can be helpful for removing mucus from the nose and relieving sinusitis symptoms. A saline (salt water) solution can be purchased in a spray bottle at a drug store or made at home. (Mix 1 teaspoon of table, Kosher, or sea salt with 2 cups of warm water. Some people add a pinch of baking soda.) Perform the nasal wash several times a day.
A simple method for administering a nasal wash is:
Neti pots have also become popular in recent years for prevention and treatment of sinusitis. Nasal irrigation with a saline solution through a neti pot involves:
Patients often have various combinations of allergies, sinusitis, and asthma. Treating each condition is important for improving them all. In addition to decongestants, pain relievers, and expectorants, other remedies are available for people who suffer from nonbacterial sinusitis during allergy season.
Patients who show signs that infection has spread beyond the nasal sinuses into the bone, brain, or other parts of the skull need emergency care. High dose antibiotics are administered intravenously, and emergency surgery is almost always necessary in such cases.
Severe Fungal Sinusitis. Sinusitis caused by severe fungal infections is a medical emergency. Treatment is aggressive surgery, and high-dose antifungal chemotherapy with a drug such as amphotericin B can be life saving.
Antibiotic drugs are used to treat bacterial, not viral, infections. Unfortunately, because of the overuse and improper use of antibiotics, many types of bacteria no longer respond to antibiotic treatment. The bacteria have become “resistant” to these drugs. Due to the problem of bacterial resistance, doctors have had to switch to different or stronger types of antibiotics to treat bacterial infections.
Amoxicillin, a type of penicillin, used to be the main antibiotic used for sinusitis but it has become less effective. Amoxicillin-clavulanate (Augmentin, generic) has replaced amoxicillin as the antibiotic recommended for treating acute bacterial sinusitis in both children and adults. It is a type of penicillin that works against a wide spectrum of bacteria.
Patients who have a history of penicillin allergy cannot take amoxicillin-clavulanate:
Other types of antibiotics, such as macrolides and trimethoprim-sulfamethoxaole, have also become ineffective for treating acute bacterial sinusitis and are no longer recommended.
Side Effects. Side effects of antibiotics vary according to the specific drug and the patient’s individual response. Many patients experience few side effects, but they many include:
Nasal-spray corticosteroids, most commonly called steroids, are effective drugs for treating allergic rhinitis. Although they are not approved for treating sinusitis, they may be helpful for patients with sinusitis (either chronic or acute) who have a history of allergic rhinitis. Nasal spray steroids can help reduce inflammation and mucus production.
Corticosteroids available in nasal spray form approved for treating nasal allergy symptoms include:
Side Effects. Corticosteroids are powerful anti-inflammatory drugs. Although oral steroids can have many side effects, the nasal-spray form affects only local areas, and the risk for widespread side effects is very low unless the drug is used excessively. Side effects of nasal corticosteroids may include:
Decongestants are drugs that help reduce nasal congestion. They are available in both pill and nasal spray forms. However, decongestants will not cure sinusitis. Nasal decongestants may actually worsen sinusitis by increasing sinus inflammation.
Due to the lack of evidence for the benefit of nasal decongestants in treating sinusitis, the FDA ordered manufacturers of over-the-counter (OTC) nasal decongestant products to remove from their labeling all references to sinusitis. The Infectious Diseases Society of America does not recommend nasal or oral decongestants for patients with acute bacterial sinusitis.
Your doctor may still recommend that you take either an OTC or prescription nasal decongestant to help relieve blockage symptoms associated with sinusitis. If you think you have sinusitis, check with your doctor before taking a decongestant. Do not try to treat sinusitis by yourself.
Decongestants should never be used in infants and children under the age of 4 years, and some doctors recommend not giving them to children under the age of 14. Children are at particular risk for central nervous system side effects including convulsions, rapid heart rates, loss of consciousness, and death.
Antihistamines are included in many cold and allergy medications. Because they dry and thicken nasal secretions, they make sinus drainage difficult and may worsen sinusitis. Patients with sinusitis should not take antihistamines.
Surgery can unblock the sinuses when drug therapy is not effective or if there are other complications, such as structural abnormalities or fungal sinusitis.
The simplest surgical approach is the insertion of a drainage tube into the sinuses followed by an infusion of sterile water to flush them out.
Functional endoscopic sinus surgery (FESS) is the standard procedure for most patients requiring surgical management of chronic sinusitis or polyposis. The procedure allows correction of obstructions, including any polyp and ventilation and drainage to aid healing.
Candidates for the Procedure.
Surgery may not be as effective for patients with fungal infections or severe chronic sinusitis.
Procedure. The surgery generally proceeds as follows:
Complications. Serious complications of FESS are very rare, but may include cerebrospinal fluid leakage, meningitis, hemorrhage, or infection.
Postsurgical Care. Postsurgical care involves the following:
Success Rates. It may take several months for the mucous membranes to completely recover, but 85 - 90% of patients have good to excellent relief of their symptoms after surgery. Children may need a second procedure 2 - 3 weeks after the first surgery to remove crusty matter.
A new type of surgical procedure threads a small balloon through the sinus passages. As the balloon is gently opened, the sinus passages expand, allowing drainage to occur. Some doctors think that this procedure is only appropriate for select patients with sinusitis disease in the maxillary (behind cheek bones), frontal (behind the sides of the forehead), and sphenoid (behind the eyes) sinus regions. It may not work for patients with disease in the ethmoid (between the eyes) sinuses, even though sinusitis commonly occurs in this location. More long-term studies are needed.
Endoscopy is now used in most cases of chronic sinusitis, but in severe cases, invasive surgery using conventional scalpel techniques to remove infected areas may be required. This may be the case with acute ethmoid sinusitis in which pus breaks through the sinus and threatens the eye, with very severe frontal sinusitis, with invasive fungal sinusitis, or when cancer is present in the sinuses.
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Reviewed By: Harvey Simon, MD, Associate Professor of Medicine, Harvard Medical School; Physician, Massachusetts General Hospital. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.