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Sinus Infections: Preventing the Pain, Pressure and Congestion

Your nose is stuffy. You have thick, yellowish mucus. You're coughing, and you feel tired and achy. You think that you have a cold. You take medicines to relieve your symptoms, but they don't help. When you also get a terrible headache, you finally drag yourself to the doctor. After listening to your history of symptoms and examining your face and forehead, the doctor says you have sinusitis.

Whether it's acute or chronic, sinusitis is painful and wearying. It's common too: every year, it affects 37 million people in the U.S. Sinusitis doesn't discriminate based on age: young people are equally as likely as elders to suffer – meaning a caregiver has much of a chance to suffer from sinus pain as their elderly parent.

What Is Sinusitis?

"Sinusitis" simply means your sinuses are inflamed―red and swollen―because of an infection or another problem.

When people say, "My sinuses are killing me," they usually are referring to symptoms of congestion and achiness in one or more of the four pairs of cavities (air-filled spaces) known as paranasal sinuses. These small hollow spaces are named for the bones that contain them:

  • Over the eyes in the brow area (Frontal sinuses)
  • Inside each cheekbone (Maxillary sinuses)
  • Behind the bridge of the nose, between the eyes (Ethmoid sinuses)

What Causes the Symptoms of Sinusitis?

The paranasal sinuses, like the inside of your nose, are lined with a thin layer of tissue called the mucous membrane, which produces mucus. This mucus flows out through openings of the paranasal sinuses and into the nose. When these openings become blocked, your sinuses are affected.

Anything that causes swelling in the nose can block the openings between your sinuses and your nose: a cold, an allergic reaction such as hay fever, or a reaction to some chemical.

What Causes the Pain?

The pain of a sinus attack arises because the trapped air and mucus put pressure on the mucous membrane of the sinuses and the bony wall behind it. Also, when a swollen membrane at the opening of a paranasal sinus prevents air from entering into the sinuses, it can create a vacuum that causes pain.

Finding Relief from Sinusitis

According to the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases,

  • Breathe warm, moist air from a steamy shower, a hot bath, or a sink filled with hot water.
  • Saline (saltwater) washes or saline nasal sprays for your nose remove thick secretions and allow the sinuses to drain. You can buy a nasal rinse kit or a "Neti pot" to irrigate your nasal cavities from any pharmacy.
  • Try over-the-counter medicines such as pain relievers and decongestants (for example, nasal spray) to relieve symptoms. Cough and cold medicines may not be safe for young children or for people who have certain health problems. Before you use them, check the label.
  • If you need to blow your nose, do it gently. Forceful blowing may force thick mucus back into your sinuses and block them. Keep both nostrils open when blowing your nose.
  • Put moist heat (using a hot, damp towel or gel pack) on your face for 5 to 10 minutes, several times a day.

If at-home remedies aren't working, see your healthcare professional. If you have acute sinusitis, your healthcare professional may prescribe antibiotics to control a bacterial infection, if present. However, many healthcare professionals may choose not to use an antibiotic because many cases of acute sinusitis will end on their own. If you suffer from nasal allergies, such as hay fever, along with sinusitis, your healthcare professional may recommend medicine to control your allergies. This may include a nasal steroid spray that reduces the swelling around the sinus passages and allows the sinuses to drain. Oral steroids, such as prednisone, may be prescribed for severe chronic rhinosinusitis. However, oral steroids are powerful medicines with significant side effects, and these medicines typically are prescribed when other medicines have failed.

When medicine fails, surgery may be the only alternative for treating chronic rhinosinusitis. The goal of surgery is to improve sinus drainage and reduce blockage of the nasal passages. Although most people have fewer symptoms and a better quality of life after surgery, problems can reoccur, sometimes even after a short period of time.

Can Sinusitis Be Prevented?

There are no methods that have been scientifically proven to prevent acute or chronic sinusitis. Your healthcare professional may recommend the following measures that can help:

  • Keep your nose as moist as possible with frequent use of saline sprays or washes.
  • Strive for an indoor environment that's not too dry and not too humid.
  • Avoid exposure to irritants such as cigarette and cigar smoke.
  • Materials that give off fumes can all make your sinus problems worse. Avoid cleaning products, hairspray, and other materials that give off fumes
  • If you haven't been tested for allergies and you are getting frequent sinus infections, ask your healthcare professional to give you an allergy evaluation or refer you to an allergy specialist.
  • Avoid long periods of swimming in pools treated with chlorine, which can irritate the lining of the nose and sinuses.
  • Avoid water diving, which forces water into the sinuses from the nasal passages.

Unfortunately, there's no easy fix for sinus problems. For many sufferers, it's an on-going battle to find relief.

Information provided by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

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