Health & Wellness

Sinus Infections: Myth v. Fact

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If you’ve ever had a case of sinusitis, you know the discomfort and pain it can cause – but do you know what’s fact and what’s fiction when it comes to a sinus infection?

Read on to learn about common myths surrounding sinus infections and get the facts to aid in future diagnoses and treatment.

Fact: There are different categories of sinusitis.

With more than 3 million cases in the U.S. per year, it’s one of the most common medical issues, yet there is a good deal of confusion surrounding sinusitis.

A sinus infection is typically characterized by inflammation of the sinus cavities. When these cavities become inflamed they shrink and obstructs the nasal passages, thereby preventing mucus from draining properly.

There are three categories of sinusitis:

  • Acute sinusitis – can last up to three weeks
  • Chronic sinusitis – can last for a longer period, even years
  • Recurrent sinusitis – recurs frequently, and repeatedly impacts the sufferer’s health

And, while a sinus infection can be caused by a number of factors – a cold, an allergy, or an infection – it tends to present the same way, with symptoms including facial pain, headache, and congestion.

Myth: Antibiotics are required to cure a sinus infection.

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Although antibiotics can help in many cases, it’s important to remember that whether or not you need antibiotics depends on the actual cause, type, and severity of infection. If you experience symptoms such as sinus pain, congestion, and have discolored mucus you may very well have a sinus infection. Nonetheless, in many cases an antibiotic is still unnecessary – and that’s because 98% of the time a new sinus infection is caused by a virus that antibiotics won’t help. In fact, current medical guidelines recommend use of antibiotics only after ten days of experiencing continued sinus infection symptoms. Use of antibiotics before this ten-day period could actually do more harm than good, since antibiotics can cause allergic reactions, promote antibiotic resistance, contribute to secondary infections, and cause other complications if not used properly.

Some alternative ways to treat symptoms of a sinus infection can include using decongestants, acetaminophen for pain and/or fever, and a saline rinse of the nasal passage. 

Myth: Sinus headaches are caused by a sinus infection.

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A sinus headache describes pain that occurs in the area of the sinuses – around and behind your eyes. While a bacterial sinus infection can cause such pain, a sinus headache is unlikely to actually be caused by a bacterial sinus infection. Instead, the more frequent culprits are the common cold, an allergic reaction, and/or a migraine headache. It’s important to remember that the common cold can cause sinus pain that can mimic a sinus infection; but again, the common cold is a viral infection. Viral infections only lead to a true bacterial sinus infection about 2% of the time.

Allergies can be another cause of sinus headaches. Whether it’s pollen, dirt and dust, pet dander, or something else, allergic reactions can cause swelling, obstruct the sinuses, and result in sinus pain without any actual infection. If allergies are contributing to continued sinus infection symptoms, then treatment with antihistamines or a nasal steroid may be helpful. (But, always remember to consult a doctor before taking any medications.)

Because it can be difficult to distinguish between all of these possible causes of a sinus headache, taking note of your symptoms can be very helpful in receiving the correct diagnosis and thus proper treatment. Remember though, if you experience chronic sinus headaches and/or a sinus infection not showing signs of improvement within ten days, be sure to seek medical advice from your doctor immediately.

Myth: Sinus infections are contagious.

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There is no evidence to suggest sinus infections are contagious. But, you may get a cold from someone else that can then lead to a sinus infection if not cared for properly. The best prevention from getting ill is to practice regular handwashing.

If you or a loved one are suffering from symptoms of a sinus infection be sure to seek the appropriate medical diagnosis and care. One great way to help ensure proper diagnosis and timely treatment is by requesting an on-demand medical exam with a MeMD provider.

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