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If you've been feeling stuffy or congested, waking up with a headache, and noticing swelling around your eyes, you may have sinusitis. Sinusitis can be a mild annoyance or become painful at times, but it's usually not severe and is easy to treat.

What Is Sinusitis?

Sinusitis is the medical term for inflammation (irritation and swelling) of the sinuses. It's usually caused by an infection.

Our sinuses are the moist air spaces within the bones of the face around the nose. When we're healthy, our sinuses are filled with air, making our facial bones less dense and much lighter in weight. Sinuses also play a role in how our voices sound.

Infection with viruses or bacteria — or a combination of both — can cause sinusitis. Generally, someone with a cold also has inflammation of the sinuses. This is viral sinusitis. Allergies also can lead to sinusitis.

If nasal congestion (stuffiness) from a common cold or allergies prevents sinuses from draining as they should, bacteria can become trapped inside them, leading to bacterial sinusitis.

Bacterial sinusitis tends to make people feel sicker than viral sinusitis. Someone with bacterial sinusitis usually will have more facial pain and swelling than someone with viral sinusitis, and might also develop a fever.

What Are the Signs & Symptoms of Sinusitis?

Some of the signs that someone may have bacterial sinusitis are:

  • a stuffy or runny nose with a daytime cough that lasts for 10 to 14 days or longer without improvement
  • continuous thick green mucus discharge from the nose (sometimes with postnasal drip)
  • lasting dull pain or swelling around the eyes
  • tenderness or pain in or around the cheekbones
  • a feeling of pressure in your head
  • a headache when you wake up in the morning or when bending over
  • bad breath, even after brushing your teeth
  • pain in the upper teeth
  • a fever higher than 102°F (39°C)

Some people also have a nighttime dry cough and find it hard to sleep. Others have upset stomachs or feel nauseous.

Many of these symptoms are similar to those you can get from viral sinusitis or allergies. Still, it's a good idea to see your doctor just in case. Viral sinusitis and allergic rhinitis are more common, but bacterial sinusitis often needs to be treated with antibiotics, and you can only get these with a doctor's prescription.

How Is Sinusitis Treated?

Doctor often prescribe antibiotics for bacterial sinusitis. Your doctor may also recommend a topical nasal steroid spray, an antihistamine or decongestant to reduce congestion, runny nose, and pressure symptoms.

Fever and pain can be treated with acetaminophen or ibuprofen. Normal saline (saltwater) sprays and irrigations are available over the counter and are safe and effective at washing the nose and easing many nasal and sinus symptoms.

Can I Prevent Sinusitis?

You can lower your risk of getting sinusitis by making some simple changes in your home environment. Try using a humidifier during cold weather to stop dry, heated air from irritating your sinuses, as that can make them more susceptible to infection. Clean the humidifier regularly because mold, which can trigger allergies in some people, forms easily in moist environments.

If you have allergies, make an extra effort to keep them under control because they can make sinus infections more likely.

Is Sinusitis Contagious?

Sinusitis itself is not contagious. But it often follows a cold, which can spread to family members and friends. The most effective way to prevent the spread of germs is to wash your hands well and often. Steer clear of used tissues, and try to reduce close contact with anyone who is sneezing often or has signs and symptoms of sinusitis.

What Can I Do to Feel Better?

If your doctor has prescribed antibiotics or any other medicines, be sure to follow the directions. Otherwise, sinusitis can last a long time or happen again. Even if you feel better, keep taking the antibiotics until you have finished them as prescribed. This helps to kill all the bacteria causing the infection.

Also be sure to get plenty of rest and drink lots of fluids so that your immune system can work along with the antibiotics to fight and cure the infection.

If you have sinusitis, chances are the type you have is not severe. But it's important to see a doctor, especially if your symptoms last or get worse. If you have a bacterial infection, quick treatment can help prevent it from getting worse or spreading. It also will help you get and feel better faster.

Reviewed by: Rachel S. Schare, MD
Date Reviewed: Apr 10, 2022

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