What is a sinus infection?
Sinus infection, also known as sinusitis, is a painful condition that results from the inflammation of the air cavities or sinuses. Behind the bones of the upper face, more specifically between the eyes and behind the forehead, nose, and cheeks are where the sinuses can be located.
The sinuses are a system of connected hollow spaces that link to the nasal passages by small channels. They help humidify the air that comes into the nasal passage and enhance a person’s voice.
Irritants, viral infections or allergies can cause the sinuses to swell. The swelling leads to a blockage within the nasal cavity which then inhibits proper sinus drainage.
Sinusitis can be chronic (long-lasting or happens frequently) or it can be acute. Acute sinusitis lasts three weeks or less and the person should have no more than three episodes per year. This is also very common. Chronic sinusitis may last for months.
A virus is the usual cause of sinus infection and usually goes away on its own.
Is it a sinus infection or a cold or flu?
It can be quite confusing to differentiate a sinus infection from a cold or flu as their symptoms can be very similar.
Sinus infections often develop after a cold. It also tends to last longer than a common cold. Cold symptoms typically get worse at 3 to 5 days then gradually get better. Unlike sinus infections that last 10 days or more.
Sinus Infection Symptoms
There are many signs and symptoms of a sinus infection. The following is a list of the predominant ones that could help determine if the condition could be a sinus infection or a different illness with similar symptoms.
1. Facial pain
Facial pain is a very common sinus infection symptom.
Sinuses are typically air-filled pockets located in the facial bone. When they become blocked by fluid, bacteria or germs like viruses multiply in these hard-to-reach, dark areas, and cause an infection.
When the sinuses become infected or inflamed, mucus thickens clogs the openings to one or more sinuses. The fluid build-up inside creates pressure.
The dull pressure within the sinus cavities increases which causes pain and tenderness. Pain is felt around the bridge of the nose, apples of the cheeks, behind the eyes and forehead which tends to worsen when bending over.
2. Congested or a runny nose
Viruses are the most common causes of sinus congestion but a bacterial infection can also sometimes cause it. Congestion is often used to refer to an obstruction in the flow of air in and out of the nose. Whereas a runny nose refers to nasal fluids that are coming out of the nasal passages.
The inflammation and swelling of the inner lining of the nasal passages and the sinuses are common in both.
Congestion is s feeling of nasal stuffiness. The infection causes swelling in the sinuses and nasal passages. The membranes found in the lining of the nasal passages also become irritated and inflamed.
This causes difficulty in breathing and a person’s voice to sound blocked or stuffy.
A runny nose, om the other hand, occurs when there is an excess of nasal drainage. The mucus may be thin or thick or somewhere in between.
The headache is due to the pressure in partially or blocked sinuses. Obstructed nasal passages lead to a mucus build up in them.
A throbbing pain is felt and made worse when a person bends forward or lies down. In addition, the pain may also increase when changing heading head positions or when getting up. The area with the affected sinus can become tender to the touch and the part of the face to become reddened. Sometimes the pain can radiate to other areas like the neck.
Other kinds of recurring headaches, like migraines or tension headaches, are often mistaken for headaches due to sinus infections.
A sinus headache usually isn’t associated with nausea or vomiting or aggravated by noise or bright light.
Fever is a sure sign that there is an infection. If the body temperature is above 100.4°F (38°C), it is a sign that someone has a fever.
This is the body’s natural defense against any infection that is occurring within. High body temperatures are capable of killing off many disease-causing organisms. It is how the immune system resolves an infection. In most cases, fevers should not cause any alarm. However, there may be times that it may rise too high which can turn serious and lead to some complications.
Since sinus infections are caused by either a virus or bacteria, the immune system will automatically focus on it. The resulting fever is helping to neutralize the bacterium or virus that is causing the infection.
Sinus infections are often accompanied by a low-grade fever.
Coughing is a response to post nasal drip and irritants in the throat.
Discharge from the sinuses goes down the back of the throat and may cause irritation. The result is a persistent and annoying cough or an uncontrollable bout of coughing that gets worse when lying down to sleep or first thing in the morning after getting up from the bed. As the sinuses drain down the back of the throat, the cough receptors at the back of the nasal pharynx get triggered.
The throat often feels itchy and full. People with a sinus infection cough to try and clear the throat.
It can be sometimes be mistaken for a cough due to colds or bronchitis. One way to differentiate them is in the time when the cough usually occurs. A sinus infection cough occurs mostly in morning and night whereas a cough due to colds and bronchitis is more consistent throughout the day and night.
6. Bad breath
Bad breath, or halitosis, is characterized as an unpleasant and embarrassing smell that comes from the mouth. There may also be a bad taste in the mouth, dry mouth or a white coating seen on the tongue.
It may be caused by many factors like bad oral hygiene and maybe a sign of a health problem like a sinus infection. It is usually one of the first symptoms, along with facial pain and a clogged or runny nose, of a sinus infection.
Halitosis is the byproduct of the colored discharge that collects in the sinuses and nose and drips into the back of the throat. These volatile byproducts produced by organisms that cause the infection contribute to the smell.
The excess mucus creates an environment ripe for organisms to multiply and produce its unpleasant byproducts.
Bad breath occurs when the breath mixes with the odor from the infection.
7. Postnasal discharge
A normal nasal discharge is clear in color. The body produces around 1.5 liters of discharge each day. Most of these are swallowed and dissolves when they reach the stomach. Mucus is made up of water with proteins, antibodies, and salts. They are produced to coat and protect the nose and sinuses.
When the mucus becomes discolored it can be a sign, along with other symptoms, of a sinus infection.
There is a common misconception that the yellow or greenish hue in the mucus is caused by organisms causing the infection. The mucus discoloration is actually caused by white blood cells. It is a sign that the immune system is doing its job in fighting the infection. The white blood cells contain a greenish colored enzyme (myeloperoxidase) that kills pathogens and when in large numbers can turn the mucus in the same color.
The yellow or green colored tint sticks around for a few days or even weeks after the infection because the immune cells are still draining.
This is often caused by an underlying illness or infection, more so when it is accompanied by other symptoms like fever or coughing.
In a sinus infection, fatigue may be brought about by other symptoms like fever or coughing. It can also be caused by the immune response of the body.
A sinus infection can set the immune system into motion. This results in the secretion of interleukins. They are cytokines (small proteins that are essential in cell signaling) that regulate inflammatory and immune responses. They can cause fatigue.
Fighting an infection can take a lot of energy from the body, so it is common to feel fatigued. Others also say that they feel exhausted because they are unable to breathe easily or because they are in pain.
Fatigue kicks in when tiredness is not relieved by enough rest or sleep.
9. Loss of sense of smell and taste
The infection not only affects the sinuses’ ability to drain but can also affect the sense of smell and taste.
The sense of smell is affected because air movement in the sinuses is interrupted by inflammation. Air movement is important because it helps molecules to settle and provide signals to the brain. Molecules are released from substances like fragrance and stimulate special nerve cells (olfactory cells) found high up in the nose. These nerve cells, in turn, send information to the brain which identified the specific smell.
The ability to smell also affects the ability to taste. Without the sense of smell, the taste buds become limited to detecting a few basic flavors like saltiness or sweetness. Other finer nuances of taste, however, become dulled until the infection gets resolved.
10. Ear pain
A sinus infection can also cause middle-ear problems due to the congestion of the nasal passages. The pressure due to the blockage of the nasal passages pushes against surrounding nerves and tissues. This results in ear pain.
The sinuses and ears in the head are all connected. So, any problems with either directly affect the other.
This can be demonstrated by dizziness, and a pressurized or heavy head or vibrating sensations in the head. The heavy head feeling is akin to that of a muffled-ear sensation, like when in a descending plane.
The inflammation located in the middle ear is called otitis media.
Most ear problems due to a sinus infection are usually not severe and do not last long. These typically go away on their own.
11. Dental pain
Pain in the upper teeth is fairly common with a sinus infection.
The symptoms of a sinus toothache are similar to those of a regular toothache. However, in a sinus toothache, the pain is primarily felt in the upper molars which often affects several teeth instead of just one. The pain is felt more in this area because the rear teeth are closer to the sinuses.
Regular toothaches are most likely the only source of the pain. It can also be intense and focused. Pain from a sinus infection toothache will only intensify with certain types of movements like jumping or bending over. The pain increases because the pressure shifts hence the pain is felt more in the teeth.
A sinus toothache can occur on both sides of the face. When the area is pressed, the pain is not as intense as a regular toothache.
12. Sore throat
The nose and throat make mucus all the time. The mucus keeps the nose and throat moist, and it clears away bacteria and other things that can cause infections and allergies. Most of the time, the mucus goes unnoticed and is swallowed.
Overproduction of mucus occurs when there is an infection present. Aside from the increase in the amount of mucus, it also can become thick.
The discharge that goes down the back of the throat can cause irritation and inflammation especially over long periods of time. This often causes persistent coughing, sore throat and pain when swallowing.
How is sinus infection treated?
Sinus infections typically go away on their own even without medical treatment. Many home remedies are available to help relieve bothersome symptoms.
Over-the-counter medicine can also be used to help with the symptoms. Some herbal medicines are also used for sinusitis.
When to go see or call a doctor?
If the symptoms of a sinus infection go beyond 10 days, it is best to have a consultation with a medical doctor.
Fever and pain that does not go away even with over-the-counter pain relievers, discolored discharges, and a weakened or compromised immune system could signal the need for medical attention.
Doctors would prescribe a course of antibiotics to help resolve the infection or other medication that could help with the discomfort brought by the symptoms of a sinus infection.