Is It a Chronic Sinus Infection?

A cold or allergies may have you reaching for the tissues for a brief time, but for those who experience chronic sinus infections, the trouble is just beginning.

Your sinuses are air-filled spaces in the skull, sitting behind the eyes, forehead, cheeks and nose. Their mucus membrane lining and cilia, or small hairs, help to drain mucus and keep air circulating. This ensures no bacteria or other germs can grow. When these passages become blocked, bacteria can build up and lead to an infection.

Sinus infections often begin as complications to other sinus-inflaming conditions, such as allergies, pollutants, and colds. Factors, such as the way your nose is constructed, a deviated septum, bone spurs, or polyps can also limit your body’s ability to drain mucus as it’s made.

Most people with an acute sinus infection, or sinusitis, will experience symptoms for up to four weeks. These symptoms include bad breath, loss of smell, a cough that worsens at night, fatigue, fever, congestion, sore throat and facial tenderness. However, those with chronic sinusitis find themselves battling the symptoms for much longer.

“The term ‘chronic,’ as it relates to sinus infections, implies duration of symptoms of 12 weeks or more,” explains William Johnson, MD, a ProMedica Physician specializing in otolaryngology. Chronic sinus infections start much the same way as acute sinus infections—often with a preceding viral upper respiratory infection or allergies.

Chronic sinus infection sufferers will also see the same symptoms of an acute sinus infection, but these can be milder. Someone with this type of infection might also find their cold or respiratory illness getting better, only to have it become worse again. Other chronic sinus infection symptoms include a high fever and darkened nasal discharge lasting several days.

“Chronic sinus infections can resolve with appropriate medical or surgical treatment,” says Dr. Johnson. “Antibiotics can be useful in the treatment of sinus infections if symptoms have been present for at least 7 to 10 days. If allergies are present, aggressive treatment of allergies can minimize disease recurrence.”

Once your family physician suspects a chronic infection, they will refer you to an ear, nose and throat specialist (ENT). This doctor can recommend several tests to confirm the diagnosis and better understand how to treat the condition. This may be done with a special scope used to view inside the sinuses, a CT scan or MRI, depending on the individual’s situation.

“Surgery is an option for medical treatment failure,” says Dr. Johnson, who explained conditions like a deviated septum or nasal polyps can’t be treated with medications.

You and your doctor can decide how to best treat your sinus condition.