A woman wrapped in a blanket blowing her nose into a tissue suffering from a sinus infection


Sinus infections: Symptoms, diagnosis and treatment

Sinus infections (sinusitis) can be painful, disruptive and make most everyday tasks more challenging. Keep reading to learn about common sinus infection symptoms, sinus infection causes and how to ease the pressure causing your pain.

What is sinusitis?

Sinus infections happen when air pressure and mucus build up in your sinuses, the narrow passageways in the skull and the bones around your nose. Your sinuses are blocked and become irritated because they’re usually filled with air. The trapped mucus and air in your sinuses make it easier for bacteria to grow and cause a sinus infection.

Sinus infection symptoms

Sinus infections can feel like a hangover or the stinging sensation you feel when you forget to plug your nose before jumping into a pool. The diagnosis of a sinus infection can be determined by your symptoms and a physical exam by your health care provider.

There’s a wave of common sinus infection symptoms, including:

  • sinus pressure
  • mucus blockage
  • nasal swelling
  • facial or ear pain
  • a sore throat
  • a headache
  • eye swelling
  • dizziness
  • a runny nose
  • post-nasal drip

You may also experience nasal drainage, bad breath or reduced smell or taste. When sinus pain relief can’t wait, start an online virtual visit or visit a nearby walk-in clinic to see the next available health care provider.

Runny nose and a headache? Get care now. Pictured is a man blowing his nose.

Types of sinus infections

There are three types of sinus infections—acute, chronic and fungal. One significant difference between them is how long they last.

  • Acute sinusitis. Also known as a short-term sinus infection, it often starts with seasonal allergies or common viral infections like the cold. Acute sinusitis lasts four weeks or less.
  • Chronic sinusitis. Acute sinusitis becomes chronic sinusitis when it lasts longer than 12 weeks. Long-term sinusitis can be persistent, even after medical treatment.
  • Fungal sinusitis. As its name suggests, fungal sinus infections are caused by fungus. Your provider may recommend nasal surgery, fungal ointments and other treatment options to ease your fungal sinus infection symptoms.

What causes sinus infections?

Sinusitis is typically triggered by a virus, bacteria, fungus clogging the sinuses and sudden pressure changes. Sinus infections aren’t contagious. However, viruses like the cold or flu are contagious and often cause sinus infections.

Other common causes of sinusitis include:

  • blocked airways, often from asthma or allergies
  • seasonal or mold allergies
  • nasal polyps (growths)
  • nasal allergies
  • dry air, often caused by winter weather
  • a deviated (crooked) septum.

Prevent getting or spreading viral infections such as the cold that cause sinusitis by washing your hands after touching high contact surfaces and covering your mouth if you cough or sneeze.

Risk factors for sinusitis

Your risk of sinus infection may increase if you:

  • have a cold
  • have seasonal allergies
  • smoke or are exposed to secondhand smoke
  • have a weak immune system or take medications that can weaken your immune system.

Sinus infections can lead to ear infections when fluid or bacteria gets trapped behind the eardrum. 

Treating sinus infections

Most viral sinus infections go away on their own in 10 days or less. The best treatment for sinus infections depends on your sinusitis symptoms.

  • Antibiotics. Most people don’t need antibiotics for sinus infections. Your health care provider may recommend antibiotics for chronic sinus infections or if you have a condition making it difficult to recover.
  • Over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers. If your doctor doesn’t recommend antibiotics, ask them if OTC pain relievers and decongestants are right for you.
  • Decongestants. This OTC option can reduce swelling, blockage and nasal congestion.

Try these ten home remedies to relieve sinus pain and pressure.

COVID-19 vs. sinusitis symptoms

Some sinus infection symptoms, such as a sore throat, fever or cough, are similar to COVID-19. Symptoms unique to COVID-19 include body aches, pain, diarrhea, a complete loss of smell or taste and shortness of breath. Learn the difference between the cold, flu and COVID-19 based on your symptoms. 

Untreated sinus infections

When left untreated, acute sinus infections can do more than make you feel miserable. Untreated sinus infections can also:

  • lead to recurring sinus infections
  • clog your sinuses and worsen sinusitis symptoms
  • create nasal polyps (growths in your nose)
  • spread to your eyes and reduce vision.

When to get care

See a health care provider if you have:

  • a severe headache or facial pain
  • worsened sinus infection symptoms
  • a fever lasting three or more days
  • a body temperature above 102 F
  • recurring sinus infections.


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