Sinus infection or sinusitis is common. Many times it is mild and rarely causes complications. Even sometimes it will get better in time with nothing more than enough rest and fluid. However if its complications have occurred, some could be dangerous or even life-threatening. That’s why it’s also important to understand the warning signs and when to seek immediate medical help!
What is sinus infection?
As the name suggests, sinus infection is infection of air-filled cavities in the skull called sinuses. The infection causes inflammation, which is starting point for other problems to occur.
There are several types of sinuses. The name of each type is named according to where it’s located.
- Sinuses behind the forehead called frontal sinuses.
- Behind the nose (ethmoid sinuses).
- Behind the eyes (sphenoid sinuses).
- And behind the cheekbones (maxillary sinuses).
These air-filled cavities are lined with mucus membranes. Mucus is produced to help protect your nasal passages and sinuses. It will naturally drain into the nose.
The inflammation of sinus can cause obstruction (blockage) and prevent your mucus from draining as well as usual. As a result, there will be more buildups of mucus in your sinus cavity and this can worsen the problem.
Based on how long it lasts, it is classified into two main categories; acute and chronic. Acute means it lasts less than a month (4 weeks). Chronic means it can last more than 3 months (12 weeks).
In some cases, the problem may last about 4-12 weeks. For such cases, it is called sub-acute. Additionally, there is a condition called recurrent sinusitis. It refers to a condition of when you have several acute sinusitis in 1 year.
What is the cause? This can vary, but viral infection is often to blame. Many people have sinus infection after a common cold event, for example. The infection can also be caused by bacteria or fungus. Sometimes environmental irritants and allergens can be also the trigger.
The common symptoms of sinusitis
The infection, inflammation, and blockage of your sinus cavities can lead to some discomfort symptoms. The main ones include:
- Nasal symptoms (nasal congestion or discharge). The obstruction in your nasal and sinus cavities may cause thicker /sticker mucus that won’t simply slide down your nose, causing nasal congestion. And the mucus exposed to the infection can have more histamine (chemical compound of your body’s immune response), leading to a runny nose (the discharge could yellow or green).
- Sinus headache. Headache can be attributed by lots of things. But if it occurs together with other sinusitis symptoms, it may be caused by sinus infection.
- Persistent cough, difficult to go away and often gets worse at night.
- Facial pressure or pain, typically over the affected sinus.
- Other symptoms include fever, changes in smell, bad breath, fatigue (tiredness), toothache, or sometimes sore throat.
It seems that some symptoms of sinusitis can reassemble with those of cold or allergies. Interestingly, colds and allergens can trigger the condition, as noted before.
What are warning signs of a dangerous sinus infection?
If acute sinus infection is caused by viral infection, it is usually easy to treat or even will relieve on its own (this is particularly true if it is not linked to other health conditions). Typically, it lasts a few days, 7-10 days, and then will get better. But if it is caused by bacterial infection, it is relatively more difficult to cope and usually will take one or some of the following paths:
- The symptoms can last longer, more than 10 days. The nasal discharge can be yellow, green, or clear. Daytime cough is also common.
- More severe symptoms. Symptoms such as facial pain, nasal discharge, and high fever last at least 3 to 4 days.
- You may have double-sickening. The symptoms may appear to get better, but then you will have another set of worsening signs and symptoms (return of cough, fever, increased nasal discharge, or severe headache) after 5-6 days.
Again, it’s very rare for sinus infection to become serious. But this doesn’t mean that it cannot pose to the risk of serious complications.
For example, sometimes the problem can be caused by particular health conditions which some could be serious. Sinusitis linked to other health conditions (such as immune disorder, abnormality structure in the nasal cavity, and allergic rhinitis) can be chronic or recurrent. For such cases, the treatment is dependent on the underlying cause of the condition.
The following conditions can also increase the risk of developing chronic sinusitis:
- GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease).
- Diabetes, a chronic disorder of glucose metabolism.
- Under-active thyroid disorder (hypothyroidism).
- Intravenous steroid treatment.
- Kartagener’s syndrome. It is a genetic disorder that can prevent hair-like structures (cilia) from moving mucus normally through the respiratory tract.
- Cystic fibrosis, an inherited disorder in which mucus becomes very thick and easy to build up.
In rare cases, the infection may spread elsewhere in the skull such as brain (read more in here).
So although sinus infection is usually mild and often gets better in time, it’s still important to understand the warning signs and symptoms of when it turns into serious.
Rare-complications of sinus infection can cause some additional symptoms, which may be serious or even life-threatening. These are outlined below: