Sinus infections, also known as sinusitis, can be easily mistaken for the very contagious common cold.
However, just because the symptoms of sinus infections and colds are very similar does not mean that all sinus infections are as contagious as the common cold.
Whether or not a sinus infection is contagious will vary depending on the cause.
The sinuses are hollow cavities in the cheeks, on either side of the nose, behind the nose, and in the forehead.
These areas are normally filled with air and surrounded by a thin layer of mucus.
A sinus infection occurs when the tissues around these hollow areas swell or get infected by bacteria, fungi, or a virus.
There are several causes of sinus infections, some of which are contagious.
A sinus infection that is caused by a virus is contagious and spreads easily from person to person.
Sinus infections caused by a deformity, a blockage in the nasal passages, or allergies are not contagious.
Types of sinus infections
There are several types of sinus infections, which are classified by duration.
They include the following:
- Acute – infections that last for about 4 or less weeks
- Subacute – infections that last for about 4 – 12 weeks
- Chronic – infections that last for longer than 12 weeks
- Recurrent – infections that occur several times a year
Additionally, each type of sinus infection has several potential causes, including bacteria, viruses, or fungi.
Some cases of sinusitis occur with only swelling and inflammation due to blockages in the nasal passages or deformities in the sinus cavities. Allergies and chronic exposure to pollutants can also lead to sinus infections.
Sinus infections often feel like a bad cold. It may be difficult for people to distinguish between a cold and a sinus infection. Some of the most common symptoms resemble a cold. These include:
- pressure in the sinus cavities
- bad breath
- cloudy nasal discharge
- stuffiness of the nose
- postnasal drip
- sore throat
- pain in the teeth
- pain in one or both ears
Sinus infections caused by bacteria have a few additional symptoms. These symptoms include:
- pus-like or thick nasal discharge
- symptoms lasting longer than a week
- facial pain
For most sinus infections, treatment focuses primarily on symptom relief. There are many options available to relieve bothersome symptoms.
- nasal irrigation to reduce mucus drainage and remove irritants
- medicated nasal sprays containing corticosteroids that reduce inflammation
- oral steroids for more severe infections
In cases of bacterial sinusitis, a doctor will typically prescribe a round of antibiotics to kill the bacteria. A person with bacterial sinusitis can expect to take antibiotics for up to 2 weeks.
In instances of chronic or recurrent sinus infections, treatment will also aim to correct the underlying cause and reduce the duration or frequency of the infections.
In these cases, a doctor may suggest injecting steroids directly into the nasal passages to reduce inflammation.
For cases of chronic sinusitis that are resistant to treatment, a doctor may suggest surgery to open up the sinus passages, giving them more room to drain. In cases of chronic sinus infections caused by allergies, a doctor may recommend allergy shots.
In some cases, a person may want to self-treat the sinus infection at home. People can use over-the-counter medications that relieve symptoms until the sinus infection clears up.
Some of the most common over-the-counter treatments to help treat sinus infections include:
- Acetaminophen: reduces pain and tenderness caused by swollen nasal passages
- Decongestants: lessen the amount of mucus produced
- Cold medications: combination drugs that treat a variety of symptoms, including congestion, pain, and cough
Additional therapies may also aid at-home treatment. For example, using steam or a humidifier may help clear nasal passages.
Some people try nasal irrigation at home, which helps to remove excess mucus and open airway passages.
People interested in herbal or natural treatments may consider using essential oils.
Some oils that may help with sinus pressure include lemon oil, lavender oil, and eucalyptus oil. Some caution should be used with essential oils as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) do not regulate or control them.
Any person who experiences pain and pressure in the sinuses for longer than a week should seek medical attention. They should also address a persistent fever or a cough if they do not get better over time.
A doctor will perform an assessment of a person with these symptoms. Part of the assessment will be determining any history of sinus infections in the individual, as well as doing a physical examination.
A doctor will look for the following signs of sinus infections:
- swelling of nasal passages and tissues
- redness in the nasal passages
- bad breath
- greenish mucus
- tenderness of the face
A doctor may also ask about pain. In particular, a doctor is often interested in pain in the ears, teeth, and areas surrounding the nasal passages.
If a person has had a sinus infection for more than a week and the doctor suspects a bacterial sinus infection, they may prescribe antibiotics.
Not everyone will need antibiotics as their infections may be caused from virus, allergies, or irregularities in their nasal cavities.