It's Not a Cold: What You Need to Know About Sinusitis

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(Photo: iStock)

As autumn leaves drift around us, it’s no secret the holidays are right around the corner and with it comes colder temperatures perfect for our chunky sweater obsession.

But along with the hustle and bustle of a season filled with pumpkin spice and everything nice, also comes things that are not so great — like, colds that confine you to stay in bed. A stuffy nose, sneezing and aches on a Saturday night might indicate a pending cold but with more careful observation, you might actually not be experiencing a cold at all.

Often difficult to diagnose for doctors since symptoms can look the same across the board, sinusitis also known as “rhinosinusitis,” affects a little more than 35 million American adults.

To help Womanistas understand sinusitis, Dr. Tod C. Huntley with the Center for Ear, Nose, Throat and Allergy at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Indianapolis says everyone at one time or another develops symptoms like nasal blockage or a runny nose, and it can be confusing as to what’s really going on.

What are sinuses?
Think of our sinuses as the air filters in our homes. As hollow spaces in the bones around the nose, sinuses are air-filled chambers around our nose that make mucus, which traps particles from the air that we breathe and drains congestion into our nose. However, when you experience sinusitis, it means the nose and sinuses have become heavily inflamed and the channels are clogged, which prevents normal drainage.

How does one get a sinus infection?
As Huntley states, a typical sinus infection can result if a cold or allergy cause enough swelling and irritation in the nose that obstruct the flow in nasal passages. This allows the mucus to become stagnant and infected with bacteria.

Sinusitus is therefore an inflammation of the tissue that lines these cavities, and the trapped secretions and altered air pressure in the sinuses can lead to pain and pressure, Huntley says.

How is a cold different from sinusitis?
While a cold is triggered by a virus and brings about a fever, sinus congestion causes an aching sensation in your head with a feeling of fullness in the middle of your face. Not only can sinusitis affect sinuses and create congestion, but it can also produce a relentless pressure and swelling stemming from clogged drainage that produces a pain in your ear, teeth, jaws, cheeks and sometimes neck. Additionally, the postnasal drip that collects from all the congestion can leave you with a raw and aching throat that starts like a tickle, similarly to a cold.

Huntley, however, points out one of the main ways to differentiate between the two is the duration of symptoms.

If it just started out of the blue, it is more likely a cold, and if the symptoms don’t go away after a week or two, you might now have a sinus infection,” he says.

What is the difference between acute and chronic sinusitis?
As if a stuffy head wasn’t hard enough to decipher, there are two types of sinusitis that could be the culprit to your bodily discomfort: acute and chronic.

Acute sinus infection can clear on its own within a few weeks,he says. Antibiotics might be of help in speeding along the healing process.

The three main symptoms associated with acute are thick nasal discharge that are cloudy or yellow, a stuffy nose, and pain or pressure in the face, specifically around the eyes and forehead. During this time, you might have a fever, bad breath, tooth pain and a cough, which can develop and last for about four weeks.

On the contrary, Huntley states chronic is a little more severe and can last much longer than a couple of weeks, and even drag out for months or longer. These types of chronic infections typically present with longstanding nasal blockage, lack of a sense of smell, thick postnasal drainage and a very frustrated patient.

What causes chronic sinusitis?
While inflammation is one causative effect for chronic sinusitis, it can usually stem from a weakened immunity and a number of varying factors like nasal polyps, a deviated nasal septum, asthma, allergies such as hay fever and respiratory infections, like colds that inflame and thicken sinus membranes, ultimately blocking drainage leading to viral, bacterial or fungal infections.

“Chronic sinusitis is typically more difficult to treat, because the underlying problems are often harder to pin down,” Huntley says. “[It] can be structural, and typically doesn’t respond over the long haul to antibiotics, could require more investigation, and sometimes is treated surgically.

How do you treat sinusitis?
While over-the-counter medicines that contain antihistamines and decongestants can also help sinus infections, a nasal decongestant spray can help relieve sinus infection symptoms that are more short term. However, continuous use of a decongestant spray over two weeks can cause a rebound effect in congestion and even make symptoms worse. Sometimes a doctor might even prescribe a steroid nasal spray that will help nasal congestion symptoms without the risk of a rebound from prolonged usage.

Huntley suggests the appropriate use of antibiotics as a mainstay of treatment for acute sinusitis, and says it usually helps the infection to clear within 10-14 days.

He goes on to say, it is important to remember antibiotics are reserved for acute bacterial infections as viruses don’t respond to them very well. Further, he states physicians should be reluctant to prescribe antibiotics for nasal congestion when a condition has been present for just a few days.

“If they are indeed viral, they should resolve on their own, and it doesn’t do you any good to be treated with an unnecessary antibiotic,” he says. “And overuse of antibiotics can sometimes lead to antibiotic resistance and can be dangerous.”

But medications are not the only solution. Huntley says you can help your nose and sinuses a lot just by flushing out mucus and debris through irrigating the nose with salt water or salin easily done with a bulb syringe or a Neti pot as they can be beneficial in keeping the sinus nose and sinus cavities moist and healthy even after the infection clears up.

How do we prevent sinus infections?
The best and simplest way to prevent sinus infections from reoccurring is to “stay healthy.” To do so, Huntley recommends you avoid contact with people who have colds or other viral upper respiratory tract infections, and wash your hands thoroughly and regularly — especially when around sick people. Huntley points out it is also essential to keep your hands away from your face and nose to minimize directly introducing germs to sinuses.

Additionally, he adds an easy and efficient way to help sinuses is to invest in a humidifier, as this will increase the humidification of the air in your home.

When should you see a doctor?
If you have been around others who have colds and start to develop similar symptoms, a visit to the doctor isn't usually needed especially if symptoms last a week or less. However, Huntley advises if symptoms last longer than two weeks, and are more severe and persistent, it might be wise to see your doctor.