Sinus Infections | Overview

Find out about sinus infections, including the symptoms, risk factors, complications, treatments, and how to prevent them.

Sinus Infections | Overview
Reviewed by Dr. David Zlotnick, Chief Medical Officer at Antidote Health

Sinus infections are common, but in rare situations, they can be serious if left untreated. Sometimes, they may lead to meningitis or other more severe health complications. This overview will provide basic information about sinus infections, including their symptoms and treatment options. Keep reading to learn more about sinusitis and how to get rid of it.

What is a Sinus Infection?

A sinus infection, also called sinusitis, is an inflammation of the sinuses. The sinuses are the hollow spaces in the bones around the nose and forehead. The sinuses are lined with delicate, mucus-producing tissues.

This mucus drains into the nose and helps to keep the air moist and free of bacteria and other airborne particles. When the sinuses become inflamed, the mucus thickens and cannot drain properly. This can lead to a buildup of mucus and pressure in the sinuses, which can be painful.

There are two types of sinusitis: acute and chronic.

Acute sinusitis

This type lasts for less than four weeks. A viral infection usually causes it, such as a cold or the flu. An allergic reaction or exposure to irritants like smoke may cause acute sinusitis. It can also occur from a bacterial or fungal infection.

Chronic sinusitis

Similar to an acute sinus infection, a bacterial or fungal infection often causes chronic sinusitis. Allergies, smoke exposure, and certain medical conditions may also contribute to chronic sinusitis. This type lasts for over 12 weeks.

Symptoms of Sinus Infections

The symptoms of a sinus infection can vary depending on the type. However, some common symptoms include:

Facial pain or pressure

This is often the most noticeable symptom. It may feel like your cheeks, forehead, or teeth are hurting. Some people describe it as feeling as if their head is going to explode.

Nasal congestion

This can make it difficult to breathe through your nose. It may also cause your nose to run or drip constantly.

Nasal discharge

You may notice that your mucus is thick and yellow or green in color. This symptom can cause a sore throat. You may also have a post-nasal drip when the mucus drains down your throat.


A fever can occur with a sinus infection. Watch for a fever over 101°F.


You may have a throbbing headache, especially when you move from lying down to sitting up.

Decreased sense of smell or taste

This can make it difficult to enjoy your food. It happens when the inflammation prevents your sinus passages from opening correctly.


You may feel tired and run down because of the infection. Some people find it hard to concentrate or carry out their everyday activities.

You should see a medical practitioner if these symptoms last over ten days.

Causes of Sinus Infections

The most common cause of sinus infections is viral, such as the common cold or flu. These viruses cause inflammation in the sinuses, which can lead to a sinus infection. Bacterial infections, such as strep throat, can also cause sinus infections. Allergies and exposure to irritants like smoke can also contribute to sinusitis.

Several risk factors can increase your chance of developing a sinus infection, such as:

Colds and flu

These viruses can cause sinus infections.


Allergies can lead to inflammation and blockages in the sinuses.


Asthma can cause inflammation in the sinuses.

Cigarette smoke

Smoke can irritate the sinuses and lead to inflammation. If you smoke, quit. If you don't smoke, avoid exposure to secondhand smoke.

Dental infections

Infections in the mouth can spread to the sinuses. These infections are more common in people with dental problems, such as gingivitis.

Nasal polyps

These are growths in the lining of the nose that can block the sinuses.

Structural problems

Problems with the nose, such as a deviated septum, can block the sinuses and lead to an infection.

Treatment for Sinus Infections

Acute sinusitis usually goes away on its own within two weeks. However, there are some things you can do to ease the symptoms in the meantime.

  • Drink plenty of fluids to thin out mucus
  • Use a humidifier to moisten the air
  • Avoid irritants like smoke and pollen
  • Take over-the-counter pain relievers like ibuprofen or acetaminophen
  • Use a nasal steroid spray to help clear congestion
  • Try a decongestant to reduce swelling

Talk to your pharmacist to find the best OTC medication for you. These treatments are safe, but you need to use them as directed and pay attention to interactions.

When to Seek Medical Care

You may not need to see a doctor if you have acute sinusitis. However, see a doctor if your symptoms are severe or if they do not improve after two weeks.

You should also see a doctor if you have any of the following symptoms:

  • A fever over 102°F (39°C)
  • Severe pain in your sinuses
  • Green or yellow mucus drainage
  • A stiff neck or headache
  • Difficulty breathing through your nose
  • Weakness, tiredness, or confusion

These may be signs of a more serious infection, such as meningitis.

You should also see a medical professional if you have sinusitis that does not improve with home treatment. Your doctor may suggest watchful waiting, which means waiting to see if your symptoms improve on their own. The overprescribing of antibiotics has led to antibiotic resistance, so it is essential only to take them when necessary.

However, you may need antibiotics if your symptoms do not improve or if they get worse. Consider a telehealth appointment if you don't want to go into the office. These appointments allow you to see a clinician remotely using your phone, computer, or tablet.

Potential Complications of Sinus Infections

While sinus infections are usually not serious, complications can occur. These may include:


This is a severe infection of the brain and spinal cord. Symptoms include a stiff neck, severe headache, and confusion.

Brain abscess

This is a rare but severe complication. An abscess is a collection of pus that forms around an infection. Symptoms include severe headache, fever, and confusion.

Vision problems

If the infection spreads to your eye socket, it can cause vision problems.

These complications are more likely to occur in people with a weakened immune system.

Are Sinus Infections Contagious?

Sinus infections are not contagious. However, the viruses or bacteria that can cause a sinus infection may be contagious. For example, you can catch a cold or the flu from someone who is sick. These viruses and bacteria can then lead to a sinus infection.

Prevention of Sinus Infections

Sinus infections can be uncomfortable and frustrating. However, there are some things you can do to help prevent them.

  • Wash your hands regularly to avoid infection
  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick
  • Keep your home clean and dust-free
  • Use a humidifier to keep the air moist
  • Drink plenty of fluids to stay hydrated
  • Avoid irritants like smoke and pollution
  • Treat allergies early

See your doctor if you have severe cold or flu symptoms that won't clear up.

These measures can help reduce your risk of sinus infections. However, you may still get them from time to time. If you do, talk to your doctor about the best way to treat them.

To get help finding a clinician if you don’t have insurance, download the Antidote app. We can help you find medical professionals for sinus infection treatment. At Antidote, we don't believe that cost should be a barrier to great healthcare.

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