Have you ever had a cold or allergy attack that wouldn’t go away? If so, there’s a good chance you actually had sinusitis. Millions of people are afflicted with sinusitis each year, making it one of the most common health conditions in America. That number may be significantly higher, since the symptoms of bacterial sinusitis often mimic those of colds or allergies, and many sufferers never see a doctor for proper diagnosis and treatment.
What is sinusitis?
Acute bacterial sinusitis is an infection of the sinus cavities caused by bacteria. It usually is preceded by a cold, allergy attack, or irritation by environmental pollutants. Unlike a cold or allergy, bacterial sinusitis requires a physician’s diagnosis and treatment with an antibiotic to cure the infection and prevent future complications.
Normally, mucus collecting in the sinuses drains into the nasal passages. When you have a cold or allergy attack, your sinuses become inflamed and are unable to drain. The tiny holes that normally drain the sinuses become blocked by this inflammation and the resulting infection in the sinuses accumulates under pressure. Diagnosis of acute sinusitis usually is based upon a physical examination and a discussion of your symptoms. Your doctor also may recommend CT Scan of your sinuses or obtain a culture of your nasal discharge to test for bacteria.
When does acute sinusitis become chronic?
When you have frequent sinusitis, or the infection lasts three months or more, it could be chronic sinusitis. Symptoms of chronic sinusitis may be less severe than those of acute sinusitis. However, untreated chronic sinusitis can cause damage to the sinuses and the surrounding structures. Your physician may order a CT Scan to help determine what type of sinusitis you have, which sinuses are involved, and if there are structural abnormalities that are causing the blockage.
What treatments are available?
Therapy for acute bacterial sinusitis should include an appropriate antibiotic and saline sinus rinses. In addition to an antibiotic, a nasal decongestant may be recommended to relieve congestion. However, nasal decongestants should not be used for more than 4-5 days since these can be habit-forming. Inhaling steam or using saline nasal sprays can help relieve sinus discomfort.
Antibiotic resistance means that some infection-causing bacteria are immune to the certain antibiotics. Antibiotic resistance is making common infections, such as sinusitis, challenging to treat. You can help prevent antibiotic resistance by taking all of the medication that the doctor has prescribed, even if your symptoms are gone before the medicine runs out.
Surgery should be considered only if medical treatment fails or if there is a nasal obstruction that cannot be corrected with medications. The type of surgery is chosen to best suit the patient and the disease. Surgery is usually performed with scopes in the nose, but can also be performed under the upper lip or behind the eyebrow.
Functional endoscopic sinus surgery (FESS) is recommended for certain types of sinus disease. With the endoscope, the surgeon can look directly into the nose, while at the same time, removing diseased tissue or polyps that might be narrowing the sinuses drainage passageways.
When should a doctor be consulted?
Because the symptoms of sinusitis sometimes mimic those of colds and allergies, you may not realize you need to see a doctor. If you suspect you have sinusitis, review these signs and symptoms. If you suffer from three or more, you should see your doctor.
Can children suffer from sinus infections?
Your child’s sinuses are not fully developed until age 20. However, children can still suffer from sinus infection. Although small, the maxillary (behind the cheek) and ethmoid (between the eyes) sinuses are present at birth. Sinusitis is difficult to diagnose in children because symptoms can be subtle and often overlap with the more common upper respiratory infections.
The following symptoms may indicate a sinus infection in your child:
- a “cold” lasting more than 10 days, sometimes with low-grade fever
- thick yellow-green nasal drainage
- post-nasal drip, sometimes leading to sore throat, cough, bad breath, nausea or vomiting
- irritability or fatigue
- swelling around the eyes
Tips to prevent sinusitis
As always, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. To avoid developing sinusitis during a cold or allergy attack, keep your sinuses clear by:
- using an oral decongestant or a short course (4 days) of nasal spray decongestant
- gently blowing your nose, blocking one nostril while blowing through the other
- drinking plenty of fluids to keep nasal discharge thin
- avoiding air travel. If you must fly, use a nasal spray decongestant before take-off to prevent blockage of the sinuses and allowing mucus to drain
- If you have allergies, try to avoid contact with things that trigger attacks. If you cannot, use over-the-counter or prescription antihistamines