Your sinuses are air pockets—eight of them—that are located above, behind, and below the eyes and are connected to the inside of the nose. Sinusitis is an inflammation of one or more of these cavities, usually because of a bacterial or viral infection or owing to allergies. Sinusitis typically starts off as an acute condition, but it can become chronic, lasting for months or even years if not treated adequately.
One function of the sinuses is to produce mucus, which helps pick up and flush out invading particles, bacteria, and air pollutants. When you’re healthy, the mucus flows from the sinus cavities to the nose; it then flows backward into the throat and down into the stomach, where stomach acids destroy any dangerous bacteria.
However, once a cavity becomes irritated—because of a cold, flu, or an allergy attack—the mucous membrane that lines the sinus typically swells abnormally, blocking the drainage channels that permit normal mucus flow. (The mucous membrane in the sinuses is the same as that of the nose—so whenever the nose is infected, the sinuses are also generally involved.)
This subsequent buildup in pressure often results in headache, nasal congestion, and pain in the forehead or at various points around the teeth, eyes, ears, cheeks, and neck, depending on which sinuses are affected.
If the cause of the swelling persists, the sinuses also allow bacteria to breed and thrive. A bacterial infection can then develop, signaled by mucus that has a bad taste and accompanied by pain and pressure that can become severe.
Symptoms of Sinusitis
- A feeling of fullness and head congestion
- Headache pain or pressure around one or both eyes or cheeks that is worse in the morning or when the sufferer bends forward.
- Constant or excessive sneezing
- Swelling in the upper eyelids
- Yellowish green nasal discharge
- Difficulty breathing through the nose following a cold or flu
- Fever and chills
What Causes Sinusitis?
Sinusitis is caused by either a viral or bacterial infection that spreads to the sinuses from the nose. An upper respiratory infection such as the flu or the common cold are the most frequent causes of sinusitis. There are other possibilities as well: swimming in contaminated water; spread of infection from abscesses in the upper teeth; or irritation from air pollutants, dust, or tobacco smoke. Some people with structural problems, such as a deviated nasal septum or polyps in the nasal cavities, may also be prone to recurring sinusitis.
What If You Do Nothing?
Without treatment, sinusitis can last for weeks or months, often with pain, congestion, and fatigue. If bacteria travel from the sinuses to the lungs, bronchitis can result. The ears can also be affected, causing balance problems.
Home Remedies for Sinusitis
- Inhale steam from a basin of hot water. Take deep breaths. This will help relieve sinus congestion and pain. Inhaling the vapors in a hot shower or bath may have similar effects.
- Use a nasal decongestant. Over-the-counter oral or nasal decongestants may help reduce swelling when used sparingly. Don’t use a nasal decongestant for more than two days or you risk a rebound effect in which the nasal tissues swell back up, often worse than before. Follow label directions carefully. (Be aware that the Food and Drug Administration has requested that decongestant products containing the ingredient phenylpropanolamine, or PPA, be taken off the market.)
- Spice up your meal. Certain spicy foods, such as garlic, Cajun spices and horseradish, can help relieve congestion and sinus pain.
- Avoid bending over with your head down. This movement increases sinus pain.
- Try exercising. For some people vigorous exercise has a powerful decongesting effect—though for others, it can aggravate congestion. Try performing an aerobic exercise at a light intensity. Stop if you feel the congestion worsen.
- Control your allergies. Sinusitis can be a complication stemming from a seasonal allergy. If allergies are the source of your sinusitis, find out what triggers them. Limit your exposure to the allergens that affect you and use antihistamines when necessary.
- Keep hydrated. Drink plenty of liquids each day—a minimum of 8 to 10 glasses—to loosen nasal secretions. Using a cool-mist humidifier in your home and sleeping with your head elevated can also help promote optimal drainage.
- Reduce alcohol consumption. When you have sinusitis, alcohol can dehydrate the body and make mucus dry and thick, leading to possible blockage of the opening of a sinus cavity.
- Minimize your exposure to people with colds or known infections. Practice sanitary health habits when you must be around such people; wash your hands frequently and avoid shared towels, napkins, and eating utensils.
- Avoid chlorinated swimming pools. If chlorine irritates your nose and sinuses, plan to do your swimming in a freshwater lake or saltwater bay or ocean.
- Take care when flying. The changing air pressure in a plane can force mucus into the sinuses. Consider using a nasal spray before taking off and shortly before landing to keep your sinuses open.
- If you smoke, quit. Tobacco smoke, like other pollutants, aggravates sinusitis symptoms.
Beyond Home Remedies: When To Call Your Doctor
Contact your physician immediately if you develop any redness or pain in an eye, bulging of an eye, paralysis of eye movements, or nausea and vomiting in association with other sinusitis symptoms. Also contact your physician if symptoms persist longer than two weeks or are accompanied by bloody nasal discharges.
What Your Doctor Will Do
Your physician will examine your mouth and throat and look at your nasal passages. A computed tomography (CT) scan of your sinuses may be performed. If allergies are suspected, a skin test will help the physician determine whether you are allergic to dust, mold, or other common allergens. A course of prescription oral antibiotics and a decongestant may be recommended to keep the sinus drainage passages open and to reduce obstruction. In cases of severe or chronic sinusitis, surgery may be recommended to drain and clean the sinuses.
The Complete Home Wellness Handbook
John Edward Swartzberg, M.D., F.A.C.P., Sheldon Margen, M.D., and the editors of the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter
Updated by Remedy Health Media