Brett A. Levine, MD, an adult and pediatric ear, nose, throat and sinus specialist, to answer your questions on what causes sinus infections.
What causes a sinus infection?
Sinuses are air spaces in the face where air should pass freely. When the openings to the sinuses/air spaces get blocked, sinus infections can occur. The blockage is due to inflammation of the sinus lining. Inflammation can be triggered by a cold or flu, a change in altitude, allergies, nasal polyps (swellings) or object instruction (most common in children). Once inflamed, bacteria can grow.
What are typical symptoms of a sinus infection?
Colored mucous, post-nasal drip and phlegm for more than two weeks could be signs of a sinus infection. Painful throbbing or pressure headaches are also symptoms. The pain is caused by the negative air pressure created in the blocked space.
At what point should you see a doctor?
If the symptoms have persisted for more than two weeks, it is necessary to re-assess the problem to treat it accordingly. Remember, you can't have a cold for six months.
Is there anything you can do to avoid sinus infections?
Yes, there are three main things you can do as preventative measures:
1. Control your allergies. You can do this by avoiding the allergy stimulant, using allergy medicine or, in severe cases, getting allergy shots.
2. Do not ignore the symptoms. Think of your sinuses as pipes. When a clogged pipe is not cleaned often enough, it rusts and hardens and cannot be fixed. Similarly, when a clogged sinus is not improved, it becomes more difficult to fix with medicine.
3. A simple, cheap, safe, preventative method is washing the sinuses with saline solution. Saline solution washes away drainage and irritants. It is simply a mix of salt and water that you can buy at your local drug store. Spray the mist into the nostrils like a fan and then blow your nose.
What kind of treatment is there for severe sinus infections? Are antibiotics enough?
In the case that a regular cycle of antibiotics does not work, your doctor may prescribe taking different antibiotics for longer periods of time (two to three weeks). Your doctor may also prescribe nasal steroids or oral steroids, which have an anti-inflammatory effect.
At what point is surgery necessary?
If all of the above treatments have been exhausted, your doctor may refer you to an ENT, who will conduct an endoscopic exam and/or order a CAT scan to detect swelling or fluid buildup of the sinuses, which will determine if you are a candidate for sinus surgery.