Do you have a stuffy, drippy nose? What about a pounding head or an intense, about-to-blow pressure behind your eyes? These symptoms could all be pointing toward 1 thing: a sinus infection.

Your sinuses are hollow cavities in your forehead and cheeks, between your eyes and behind your nose. “They stay healthy when mucus drains and air gets in,” says Richard L. Nass, MD. He’s a board-certified ear, nose and throat doctor with a practice in New York City and East Hampton, New York. When sinuses become blocked, that can spell trouble.

Sinus infections (also called sinusitis) typically happen when fluid builds up in those air-filled pockets. The fluid creates a perfect habitat for viruses and bacteria to grow. Your immune system responds, your sinuses become inflamed and the infection ensues.

And, boy, can the symptoms be intense. Here’s what you need to know about the causes of sinus infections — and how to find relief.

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Why do I get sinus infections?

It’s still a mystery as to why some people develop sinusitis and others don’t, says David W. Jang, MD. He’s an ear, nose and throat doctor and sinus specialist at Duke Health in Durham, North Carolina. “It’s likely a combination of external factors such as exposure to allergens and respiratory viruses [such as the common cold] and internal factors like genetics.”

Some people are also more susceptible to sinus infections. That includes people who:

  • Have asthma
  • Smoke or are exposed to secondhand smoke
  • Have sinus problems such as a deviated septum or nasal polyps on the lining of their nose
  • Have a weakened immune system
  • Have seasonal allergies (we found some super easy ways to save on allergy medications)

What we do know: Sinus infections often spike in the winter. That’s when the air is drier (dry air can irritate the sinuses and make them a target for infection). Plus, more viruses are floating around. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that flu season tends to peak in February.

What are the symptoms of a sinus infection?

Facial pain and pressure are 2 symptoms more unique to sinus infections. According to the Cleveland Clinic, other common sinus infection symptoms include:

  • Yellow or green nasal discharge
  • Stuffy nose
  • Teeth pain
  • Loss of smell and taste
  • Headache
  • Postnasal drip
  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Bad breath

Sinus infections usually start as a viral respiratory infection (brought on by, say, the common cold) that can morph into a bacterial infection. If symptoms worsen or don’t improve after 7 to 10 days, that indicates the infection may be bacterial, Dr. Jang says. And that matters when it comes to treatment. (More on that later.)

Even if you’re feeling somewhat normal after this acute phase, symptoms can stick around. The post-inflammatory response may persist for a couple of weeks, says Gregory Levitin, MD. He’s an associate clinical professor of otolaryngology at New York Eye and Ear Infirmary of Mount Sinai and director of City Sinus Care in New York City. Lingering symptoms may include thick mucus, postnasal drip and/or nasal congestion.

If you’re suffering with symptoms for longer than 3 months, you may have chronic sinusitis. People with chronic sinusitis may have allergies, asthma or nasal polyps, Dr. Jang says.

How are sinus infections treated?

Thankfully, most acute sinus infections caused by viruses will go away on their own.

Talk to your doctor, though, if the infection lingers and you’re running a fever or you’re in a lot of pain. When the symptoms last longer than 10 days, they may be a sign of a bacterial infection. And that means it can be treated with antibiotics, Dr. Levitin says. (Remember: Antibiotics kill bacteria, not viruses.)

Your doctor may also consider prescribing an allergy medication. These can lessen the swelling of the lining in your nasal cavity. Examples are fluticasone (Xhance®) and mometasone (Sinuva®, Nasonex®).

When considering treatments, talk with your care team about the pros and cons of each option. Treating chronic sinusitis with antibiotics is controversial, Dr. Jang says. Often people with this condition have already taken several rounds of antibiotics to treat their symptoms (even though the inflammation may not be caused by bacteria). Overuse of antibiotics can also lead to resistant bacteria.

Surgical options can help, too. One method is called a balloon sinuplasty. With this procedure, a tiny balloon is inserted into the blocked nasal passage, inflated and then removed. This leaves an open sinus passageway. People with a deviated septum or polyps can be more prone to sinus infections. And they may need surgery to fix the root of their symptoms.

What else can I do to find relief?

There’s plenty you can do at home to ease your symptoms. Speak to your doctor to find options that are specific to your case. But here are some of the likely suggestions:

  • Put a warm compress on your nose and forehead to relieve sinus pressure.
  • Sit in a steamy bathroom or put a towel over your head and lean over a pot of boiled water.
  • Try nasal steroids and decongestants, such as Afrin®. “Sinus pressure can sometimes be caused by simple congestion,” Dr. Nass says. And that congestion can be relieved by using an over-the-counter (OTC) nasal steroid spray, nasal saline irrigations and steam inhalations. “But if symptoms persist for more than 10 days, consult your doctor,” adds Dr. Nass. “Never use decongestant nasal sprays or oral decongestant tablets unless approved by your doctor. And never use decongestant nasal sprays for more than 5 days under any circumstances.”
  • Use OTC pain relievers such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen to ease discomfort.
  • Prioritize sleep, and drink plenty of fluids.
  • Flush your sinuses with saline (salt water). This is known as nasal irrigation. When the saline goes through the nasal passages, it can sometimes clear away mucus and allergens.

How can I prevent sinus infections?

Do everything you can to avoid clogging your sinuses in the first place. That means avoiding known allergy or asthma triggers. And, of course, stay healthy. Regularly wash your hands with soap and water, and get vaccinated for illnesses such as the flu. You may also opt to use a humidifier during the drier months to soothe your sinuses.

The next time your head is pounding or your cheeks ache, know that you have options to find relief.

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Additional sources
When flu season peaks:
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Overview of acute sinusitis and symptoms: Cleveland Clinic