Frequent sinus infections can cause facial aches and pains and make it difficult to breathe. In some cases, the sinuses are infected but other conditions can mimic sinus infections, as well. Consulting an ear, nose, throat specialist is often the only way to determine the root cause of the symptoms, get an appropriate diagnosis and receive treatment that will relieve painful symptoms.

What is a sinus infection?

A sinus infection, also called sinusitis, occurs when the lining of the sinuses become inflamed. It causes the sinuses, the head and the face to ache. Sinusitis can be caused by bacteria, a virus, or mold spores. It’s estimated that 31 million Americans suffer with sinus infections1 and they spend approximately $1 billion dollars on over-the-counter medications trying to relieve them. The average sinus infection can last up to a month. Chronic sinus infections can last up to two months.

Signs and symptoms of sinus infections

A sinus infection blocks the nasal passages and makes it difficult to breathe. The most common symptom of a sinus infection is facial pain that follows the sinus cavity from the nose, around the eyes and up into the forehead. It can hurt to press on one’s cheeks and sometimes hurts to bear down with one’s teeth. There may also be pain in other areas of the mouth or in the teeth themselves. A sinus infection can cause a runny nose, headache, post nasal drip, airway congestion, coughing and fatigue.

Things that act like sinus infections but aren’t

One of the confusing things about sinusitis is that the symptoms are similar to other conditions. It can be difficult to determine if the symptoms mean the presence of a sinus infection, a very bad cold, an allergy attack, asthma or a deviated septum.

For example, a deviated septum can contribute to sinus infections. It can cause facial pain and congestion in one or both nostrils. The septum is the middle wall of bone separating both nasal passages and when it becomes crooked, it’s referred to as a deviated septum. As a result, one nasal cavity is narrower than the other and can become congested.

If nasal polyps are large enough, they will cause the same symptoms as chronic sinus infections, or cause an actual sinus infection.

All of these symptoms can easily be confusing and make it challenging to find the right treatment.  An ear, nose, throat (ENT) specialist can determine the cause of the symptoms and make an accurate diagnosis that will lead to effective treatments.

The top six treatments for sinus infections

Thankfully there are many different treatments for chronic sinus infections. Many of these are now available in a physician’s office instead of the hospital, which can reduce pain and recovery time. Treatments include:

Medications: Often the first line of treatment for sinusitis is antibiotics, over-the-counter medications or nasal steroids. If these treatments do not work, then the physician may recommend other treatments. One important note: if you suffer from chronic sinusitis, avoid the use of Afrin nasal spray. It may provide initial relief but if it is used for more than two to three days it may have a rebound effect and actually increase inflammation of the nasal cavities.

Balloon sinuplasty : This advanced treatment can provide relief from chronic sinus infections and is a vast improvement on previous types of sinus surgery. Balloon sinuplasty is a minimally invasive procedure conducted by specially trained ENT physicians in the office using only local anesthesia. During the procedure a small balloon is inserted into the sinuses. The balloon slowly expands the sinuses without cutting tissue. This widens the pathways of the sinuses and drains any mucus that may be narrowing them. The balloon is removed and the sinuses heal in the new, wider shape, improving breathing and reducing/eliminating future sinus infections.

Previous procedures were conducted in an operating room with general anesthesia. They required post-surgical nose packing and a longer recovery period. Balloon sinuplasty does not require nose packing and recovery generally takes only 24 to 48 hours.  It is considered to be highly effective for patients who have frequent sinus infections and have not responded to medications.

Endoscopic sinus surgery: This minimally invasive surgery is effective in treating chronic sinus infections. It is conducted on an outpatient basis and reduces pain and recovery time. Because tiny instruments are used during the surgery there is very little post-surgical swelling or bruising and nasal packing is not required. Endoscopic sinus surgery is also used to insert the PROPEL® Mometasone Furoate Implant, a spring-like instrument that keeps the sinuses open. Patients find that headaches, sinus pain, congestion and breathing difficulties are typically resolved after the surgery.

Stereotactic Endoscopic Sinus Surgery: This is another type of minimally invasive surgery that is performed on an outpatient procedure and is an effective treatment for chronic sinus infections. During this type of surgery, physicians can create a three-dimensional map of the sinus cavity using a CAT scan. The image allows physicians to accurately pinpoint issues in the nasal cavity that may contribute to chronic sinusitis in order to treat it effectively.

Corticosteriods: These are especially effective in cases where nasal polyps are contributing to sinus infections. Corticosteroid nasal sprays are prescribed to reduce or eliminate polyps altogether. If the spray form doesn’t work, then oral or injected corticosteroids are usually recommended.

Topical rinses: Topical rinses will irrigate and rinse the sinuses, relieving them of mucus that may be clogging them, causing breathing difficulties. They are available in a bottle or as a Neti pot. Neti pots are available at any pharmacy. They can be filled with over-the-counter saline solutions or be filled with a water and salt solution mixed at home. Once the pot is filled, the narrow tip is inserted into one nostril. Leading the head forward and slightly to the side, the solution will enter one nostril and run out through the other, cleaning it of excess mucus and any other material that may be obstructing it. Then the process is repeated with the other nostril. It is one of the oldest methods of cleaning the nostrils and clearing a congested head and was developed in ancient India by yogis2.

As you can see, chronic sinus infections can be as confusing as they are aggravating. A highly trained, experienced ENT can determine exactly what is causing the symptoms, leading to effective treatments that will reduce the aches, pain and inflammation.