Sinus Infections: What Causes Them, What Helps

Sinus infections are common in the wintertime, possibly due to dry air and individuals being closer together indoors. But what exactly causes them? Allan Rubin, MD, PhD, says a sinus cavity that won’t drain is to blame.

“We have these spaces in our face and head that are lined by little glands that produce mucus all the time,” says Dr. Rubin. “The mucus goes in our nose, we swallow it and we’re usually unaware of it. But if for some reason the sinuses cannot drain because of swelling inside the nose, you get an accumulation of fluid in the sinus cavity that’s not supposed to be there. Then comes the bacteria, virus or fungus.”

It’s not a pretty picture, but it certainly helps explain why sinus infections are common when allergies flare up or after a bad cold, when the opening into the sinus cavity is swollen.

Antibiotics may be used for treatment, but when sinus infections are from a virus, antibiotics won’t help. “You can try decongestants, which will hopefully open the swelling, or saltwater sprays, which will clean up some of the stuff that’s getting into the nose,” advises Dr. Rubin. “Those on allergy medicines, such as anti-histamines, may want to hold off on those medicines during a sinus infection. These will cause dryness and that’s not what you want; you want things moving.”

If the symptoms haven’t resolved after five days or get progressively worse after three days, you’ll want to see your primary care provider. If you have chronic sinus infections (going on for two or three months with multiple courses of antibiotics), your doctor may recommend a CAT scan of your sinuses to see if there’s inflammation thickening mucus in your sinuses.

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