What You Need to Know About Sinus Infections: Symptoms + Relief
Your morning begins splendidly after a great night’s sleep. You have a cup of coffee, see the kids off to school, tell your significant other goodbye, and then it hits you as you’re fighting rush hour traffic to arrive at work on time.
You feel pressure behind your nostrils, you develop a little bit of a fever, and your headache makes even the smallest task at work into a herculean endeavor. Sinus infections can sneak up unexpectedly and make an otherwise-good day absolutely miserable.
Your sinuses are air-filled chambers in the skull – behind your forehead, nasal bones, cheeks, and eyes – lined with mucous membranes. You have four pairs of sinuses, called the paranasal air sinuses, which connect to your nasal passages. (1)
Sinusitis or rhinosinusitis – more commonly called sinus infections – occurs when your paranasal sinus openings become obstructed or congested. Blocked sinuses result from too much mucus being built up in the chambers. When that happens, bacteria and other germs can grow more easily, creating infection and inflammation. (1)
Sinus infections affect about 37 million – that’s about 14 percent – of Americans yearly, diminishing quality of life as its miserable symptoms demand sick days, lost productivity, and generally leaving you feeling horrible. In fact, chronic sinus infections alone result in about 18 – 22 million physician office visits yearly, and sinus infections altogether cost over eight billion dollars in healthcare costs yearly. (2)
Sinus infections sometimes start as a common cold that leaves you feeling weak and sick. They can happen in any season, but predominantly occur in the autumn, and can last from several days to several weeks. Besides having cold-like symptoms including a stuffy nose and fever, you feel harsh pain around your face. (3)
Everyone can be at risk for sinus infections, but especially susceptible demographics include:
- Infants (especially before the immune system matures)
- The elderly (nasal passages dry out and cartilage supporting the nasal passages weakens as you get older)
- People with asthma or allergies (you have increased risk for inflammation)
- Hospitalized patients, especially if you have a weakened immune system
- People with chronic illnesses like diabetes or hormonal imbalances like hypothyroid
- People with weak immune systems (like HIV/ AIDS) (1)
Sinus infection symptoms include thick nasal discharge, facial pain or pressure, fever, and reduced sense of smell. Depending on their duration, sinus infections become classified as acute, subacute, chronic, or recurrent.
While those are broad categories, in general acute sinus infections last less than four weeks, are usually caused by viruses, and resolve on their own. Chronic sinus infections, on the other hand, are usually caused by bacteria and last longer than 12 weeks. (1)
While viral infections usually cause acute sinus infections, bacterial, or fungal infections can also trigger them; so can allergens and environmental irritants. Most acute sinus infections are created by upper respiratory tract viral infections like a cold. (1)
Long-term swelling and inflammation of the sinuses, which can sometimes occur from recurring acute sinus infections, creates chronic sinus infections. Asthma and allergic rhinitis, immune disorders, and structural abnormalities in the nose (like a deviated septum) can also create chronic sinus infections. (1)
Symptoms of sinus infections can feel absolutely miserable, and perhaps worst among those symptoms are headaches. The buildup of a sinus infection – the swelling, mucus, and blocked channels – creates pressure that feels like a pounding, relentless headache.
According to WebMD, with sinus headaches the persistent, severe pain in your cheekbones, forehead, or the bridge of your nose often gets worse when you move your head suddenly or strain. You might also get a runny nose, fever, “fullness” in your ears, and facial swelling. (4)
Sinus headaches overlap with other types of headaches include migraines. (5) One way to determine whether you have sinus infection-related headaches is to look at other symptoms including fever.
Sinus Medicine: Here’s What Your Doctor Might Prescribe
When you visit your doctor about sinus relief, he or she will probably initially ask about your symptoms including pain, fever, coughing, and your general wellbeing. Noting those and other symptoms beforehand can help your doctor better diagnose your condition.
You can then expect a series of exams. Your doctor might use an endoscope to determine whether your membranes are swollen and the color of secretions. He or she might sample those secretions by inserting a probe into your nose. Your doctor might also do an ultrasound for further diagnosis.
Since allergies are often linked with chronic sinus infection, your doctor might conduct an allergy test if he or she suspects chronic infections.
Learning whether bacteria or a virus triggers your sinus infection can become quite involved, yet researchers note knowing doesn’t really affect symptoms or treatment decisions since acute sinus infections clear up within one to two weeks. (6)
For sinus relief, your doctor can present several medications depending on severity and duration. They might recommend an over-the-counter formula or prescribe a drug to relieve symptoms.
Under certain conditions, sinus infection relief will demand medications. Please listen to your doctor if he or she prescribes pharmaceutical drugs or over-the-counter medications. Never discontinue any of them without talking with your physician.
One of them is nasal steroid sprays, which help reduce inflammation and swelling in your sinus mucus membranes. The U.S. National Library of Medicine finds these sprays aren’t very helpful.
In fact, their statistics show they take several days to take effect, yet after two to three weeks they only relieve symptoms in seven out of 100 people. They also carry side effects like nosebleeds and headaches. (3)
Other sinus infection treatments include painkillers, decongestant nasal sprays, and saline solutions. These include acetylsalicylic acid (in aspirin), acetaminophen, and nasal sprays and drops that help reduce swelling or congestion.
Unlike steroid sprays, decongestants provide fast relief by reducing swelling in your mucus membranes, making it easier to breathe through your nose immediately (though they aren’t anti-inflammatory).
Many treatments carry side effects. Decongestant medications, for instance, can create headaches and dizziness. (1) Always discuss potential side effects with your physician, and if they occur, ask for alternatives to minimize or eliminate these side effects.
Doctors might also prescribe antibiotics for sinus infections. However, antibiotics are only effective against bacteria, and sinus infections are usually created by viruses. In other words, antibiotics won’t usually work with sinus infection. Statistics show even if bacteria does create your sinus infection, targeted antibiotics rarely work and the infection can clear up just as quickly without drug treatment. (3)
One meta-analysis of 13 randomized controlled trials (RCTs) found that sinus infections improved without antibiotics, leading two medical doctors to write a review entitled “Patients insist on antibiotics for sinusitis? Here is a good reason to say ‘no’.”
“Antibiotics have little if any positive effects on the severity and duration of symptoms, and they cause adverse effects and create unnecessary expense,” these two doctors argue. (7)
Sinus Infection Remedies: 10 Natural Ways to Get Sinus Relief
About 70 percent of the time, sinus infections clear up on their own. (8) If they persist more than a week, the standard medical strategy suggests you should visit your doctor.
If your doctor insists on prescription drugs, consider them judiciously – they can sometimes be necessary for more severe sinus infections – and discuss potential drawbacks and alternatives. Never, ever modify or discontinue using a prescribed drug without your physician’s consent.
At the same time, a number of strategies can complement prescription or over-the-counter drugs to provide sinus relief. Maybe you can’t reduce your airline travel for work or other endeavors (flying can exacerbate sinus infections), but you can stop smoking if you do, and you can reduce dry air that can sometimes trigger sinus infections with a humidifier.
A nasal wash can also help remove mucus from your nose and relieving sinus infection symptoms. A Neti pot makes a great way to do this, but closely follow instructions when you prepare your own saline solution including using filtered (not tap) water. (1)
Beyond that, eliminating sinus infections might require addressing culprits you might not connect with these and other problems. Among the strategies that can help you find sinus pain relief include:
1. Pay attention to food sensitivities.
Mark Hyman, MD, addresses these delayed reactions in his book The UltraSimple Diet. (Hyman wrote the forward to my book Align Your Health.) Unlike an IgE hypersensitivity reaction, which is immediate and severe, Hyman says a delayed allergy (or IgG delayed hypersensitivity reaction) creates delayed allergic reactions that can cause symptoms anywhere from a few hours to a few days, creating inflammation and triggering or exacerbating numerous conditions including sinus infections. (You can learn more about food sensitivities and how they differ from food allergies in this article.) Ditch common offenders including gluten, dairy, and sugar for three weeks and see if your symptoms don’t improve. Be aware these and other food sensitivities lie in sneaky foods you might not suspect. Working with a chiropractor or other trained healthcare practitioner can make pinpointing and eliminating them easier.
2. Manage gut health.
Research shows microbiome alterations – in other words, when your good gut bacteria goes bad – can contribute to chronic sinus infections. (9) That makes sense when you consider about 70 percent of your immune system resides in your gut. (10) Fixing your gut requires removing food sensitivities and adding gut-healing probiotics, prebiotics, fiber-rich foods, and nutrients like L-glutamine. Again, consider working with a chiropractor or other trained professional to heal gut issues.
3. Eliminate potential culprits.
Allergens, pollutants, and seemingly innocuous things like air fresheners or household cleaners can aggregate your nasal passageways, setting the stage for sinus infections. What triggers a reaction can vary; one strategy involves becoming a detective to see what sparks a reaction. Maybe your favorite candle or perfume creates a sinus infection. It could be something far more serious like mold infections in your house or workplace. Finding those culprits might be as easy as tossing what might be triggering the sinus infection and seeing if things improve. Or it could be as complex as hiring a professional to detect what might be causing sinus infections in your environment.
4. Reduce stress.
Stress cranks up hormones like your stress hormone cortisol, contributing to inflammation, zapping your immune system, and increasing your risk for sinus infections when they stay charged up beyond their prime. Studies show stress can ramp up allergic inflammatory responses. (11) Everyone has a different way of healthily relieving stress. Yours might be meditation, yoga, deep breathing, or playing with your Golden retriever. The important thing to reduce sinus infections is to make time to do these de-stressors regularly.
5. Uncover sneaky culprits.
Sometimes finding out what triggers sinus infections demands a little sleuthing. Among suspects you never might think create sinus infection include hormonal imbalances like adrenal fatigue.
“Adrenal fatigue is often precipitated by recurring bouts of bronchitis, pneumonia, asthma, sinusitis, or other respiratory infections,” says James Wilson, ND, PhD, in Adrenal Fatigue. “The more severe the infection, the more frequently it occurs or the longer it lasts, the more likely it is that the adrenals are involved.”
Depression can also spark sinus infections. In fact, research shows up to one-fourth of people with chronic sinus infections suffer with depression. In a Psychology Today article, Linda Wasmer Andrews discusses several reasons for increased depression including the duration of miserable symptoms like pain and pressure as well as sleep problems. She notes many chronic sinus infection sufferers also have allergies, which are also linked with depression. (12)
6. Take precautionary measures.
The best way to prevent a sinus infection is to keep your immune system in top shape. Practice good hygiene by washing your hands regularly and if possible, avoid others who are contagious. Optimal sleep (aim for eight hours of quality, uninterrupted sleep nightly) and stress management also go a long way toward preventing sinus infections. Keep a humidifier in your bedroom and workspace to improve air quality. (1)
7. Add in the right foods.
While they aren’t magic bullets, spicy foods and foods with a little bite can help relieve sinus infections. For many of these foods like raw garlic, a small bit goes a long way. In his book The 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth, Jonny Bowden, PhD, says a little horseradish – emphasis on a little – can clear up your sinuses by inhibiting bacterial infection and increasing circulation. You might also consider medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), found in coconut oil or as a stand-alone supplement. Among the bacteria MCT oil can zap is streptococcus, which contributes to sinus infections.
“The predominant medium-chain triglyceride in coconut oil is lauric acid, which has been shown in countless studies to be antimicrobial, antibacterial, and antiviral,” says Bowden. “The fatty acids in coconut oil are powerful antibiotics.”
8. Increase your anti-inflammatory protocol.
Sinus infections are inflammatory, so it makes sense to focus on anti-inflammatory nutrients and foods to dial down inflammation. After all, studies show we’re eating 20 or more times more inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids compared with anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids, paving the way for obesity and many other problems. (13) Ditch the big culprits including vegetable oils, farm-raised fish, grain-fed beef, and pretty much any sugary processed food. Go for more omega 3s. Wild-caught fish is rich in the anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Leafy and cruciferous greens and nuts and seeds (especially flaxseed, chia seeds, and walnuts) are also great anti-inflammatory foods. Also consider high-quality fish oil, curcumin, and other anti-inflammatory nutrients.
9. Get the right nutrients.
Work with a chiropractor or other practitioner to address specific nutrients for sinus infections. Research shows 80 percent of chiropractors incorporate nutrients into their practice, and they can help you best determine the correct ones for your condition. (14) Here is a brief but certainly not comprehensive overview:
- Antioxidant nutrients. One study compared children with chronic sinus infections with children who didn’t get sinus infections. Researchers found vitamin E, vitamin C, copper, and zinc levels were significantly lower in children with chronic sinus infections. (Vitamin A and magnesium levels did not differ between the two groups.) Researchers concluded levels of antioxidant vitamins and elements could contribute to development and treatment of chronic sinus infections in children. (15)
- Vitamin D. Research shows vitamin D deficiencies can increase your susceptibility to infection, (16) and one study in particular found an inverse relationship between vitamin D levels and acute sinus infections. (17)
- This underrated calming mineral plays a role in over 300 enzymatic reactions.(18) Research show magnesium can help relieve migraines, and it might also provide sinus headache relief. (19)
- Synergistic formulas. These usually contain an array of vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients in their correct ratio that support your immune system and reduce inflammation.
- Synergistic formulas. These usually contain an array of vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients in their correct ratio that support your immune system and reduce inflammation.
10. Stay hydrated.
This last one is simplest (simple but not always easy) and maybe the most important of sinus infection remedies. Clean, filtered water helps lubricate your mucus membranes. Ginger tea or green tea with a little lemon and unfiltered raw honey can also help soothe sinus infections. You might also try bone broth, which provides anti-inflammatory nutrients and electrolytes. (1)
You never need to suffer with the miseries of sinus infections. These complementary practices alongside with working with a doctor can provide relief.
While sinus infection relief will sometimes demand medications, you have plenty of natural strategies to help minimize their impact.
Worth repeating: Please listen to your doctor if he or she prescribes pharmaceutical drugs or over-the-counter medications. Never discontinue any of them without talking with your physician. At the same time, don’t feel intimidated to ask for non-invasive, more natural remedies for sinus infections.
If you struggle with sinus infection, what sinus relief strategies would you add to this list? I’d love to hear your story below or on my Facebook page. And check out this blog for more strategies to fight the common cold.
About Dr. B.J. Hardick
Dr. B.J. Hardick is a Doctor of Chiropractic and internationally-recognized natural health author and speaker. His health journey began as a child — alternative medicine is the only medicine he has ever known. In 2009, he authored his first book, Maximized Living Nutrition Plans. In 2018, he authored his second book, Align Your Health. An energizing and passionate speaker, Dr. Hardick shares his lifestyle methods to numerous professional and public audiences every year in the United States and Canada. His teachings encompass the principles of ancestral nutrition, detoxification, functional fitness, mindfulness, and green living. Learn More