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Acute sinusitis

Acute sinusitis (acute rhinosinusitis) causes the cavities around your nasal passages (sinuses) to become inflamed and swollen. This interferes with drainage and causes mucus to build up.

With acute sinusitis, it may be difficult to breathe through your nose. The area around your eyes and face may feel swollen, and you may have throbbing facial pain or a headache.

Acute sinusitis is most often caused by the common cold. Other triggers include allergies, bacterial and fungal infections. Treatment of acute sinusitis depends on the cause. In most cases, home remedies are all that's needed. However, persistent sinusitis can lead to serious infections and other complications. Sinusitis that lasts more than eight weeks or keeps coming back is called chronic sinusitis.

Symptoms Causes Risk factors Complications Prevention

Acute sinusitis symptoms often include:

  • Drainage of a thick, yellow or greenish discharge from the nose or down the back of the throat
  • Nasal obstruction or congestion, causing difficulty breathing through your nose
  • Pain, tenderness, swelling and pressure around your eyes, cheeks, nose or forehead
  • Reduced sense of smell and taste
  • Cough, which may be worse at night

Other signs and symptoms can include:

  • Ear pain
  • Headache
  • Aching in your upper jaw and teeth
  • Bad breath (halitosis)
  • Fatigue
  • Fever

When to see a doctor

If you have mild symptoms of sinusitis, try self-care.

Contact your doctor if you have any of the following:

  • Symptoms that don't improve within a few days or symptoms that get worse
  • A persistent fever
  • A history of recurrent or chronic sinusitis

See a doctor immediately if you have signs or symptoms that may indicate a serious infection:

  • Pain or swelling around your eyes
  • Swollen forehead
  • Severe headache
  • Confusion
  • Double vision or other vision changes
  • Stiff neck
  • Shortness of breath

When you have sinusitis, the mucous membranes of your nose, sinuses and throat (upper respiratory tract) become inflamed. Swelling obstructs the sinus openings and prevents mucus from draining normally, causing facial pain and other sinusitis symptoms.

Blocked sinuses create a moist environment that makes it easier for infection to take hold. Sinuses that become infected and can't drain become pus filled, leading to signs and symptoms such as thick, yellow or greenish discharge and other symptoms of infection.

Acute sinusitis can be caused by:

  • Viral infection. Most cases of acute sinusitis are caused by the common cold.
  • Bacterial infection. When an upper respiratory tract infection persists longer than seven to 10 days, it's more likely to be caused by a bacterial infection than by a viral infection.
  • Fungal infection. You're at increased risk of a fungal infection if you have sinus abnormalities or a weakened immune system.

Some health conditions can increase your risk of getting a sinus infection that causes sinusitis, or can increase your risk of getting sinusitis that isn't caused by an underlying infection. These conditions include:

  • Allergies such as hay fever. Inflammation that occurs with allergies may block your sinuses.
  • Nasal polyps or tumors. These tissue growths may block the nasal passages or sinuses.
  • Deviated nasal septum. A crooked septum — the wall between the nostrils — may restrict or block sinus passages.
  • Tooth infection. A small number of cases of acute sinusitis are caused by an infected tooth.
  • Other medical conditions. The complications of cystic fibrosis, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) or immune system disorders may result in blocked sinuses or an increased risk of infection.

You may be at increased risk of getting sinusitis if you have:

  • Hay fever or another allergic condition that affects your sinuses
  • A nasal passage abnormality, such as a deviated nasal septum, nasal polyps or tumors
  • A medical condition such as cystic fibrosis, GERD or an immune system disorder such as immunoglobulin or antibody deficiency
  • Regular exposure to pollutants such as cigarette smoke

Acute sinusitis complications include:

  • Asthma flare-ups. Acute sinusitis can trigger an asthma attack.
  • Chronic sinusitis. Acute sinusitis may be a flare-up of a long-term problem known as chronic sinusitis. Chronic sinusitis is sinusitis that lasts longer than eight weeks.
  • Meningitis. This occurs when infection spreads to the lining of the brain.
  • Vision problems. If infection spreads to your eye socket, it can cause reduced vision or even blindness. This is a medical emergency that requires immediate treatment to prevent potentially permanent damage.
  • Ear infection. Acute sinusitis may occur with an ear infection.

Take these steps to help reduce your risk of getting acute sinusitis:

  • Avoid upper respiratory infections. Minimize contact with people who have colds. Wash your hands frequently with soap and water, especially before your meals.
  • Carefully manage your allergies. Work with your doctor to keep symptoms under control.
  • Avoid cigarette smoke and polluted air. Tobacco smoke and other pollutants can irritate and inflame your lungs and nasal passages.
  • Use a humidifier. If the air in your home is dry, such as it is if you have forced-air heat, adding moisture to the air may help prevent sinusitis. Be sure the humidifier stays clean and free of mold with regular, thorough cleaning.
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