Sinus infections cause inflammation, or swelling, of the sinuses. This is also known as sinusitis. As smoke is a common irritant, smoking can impact the nasal cavity and may lead to infections such as sinusitis.

The sinuses are the empty spaces behind the forehead and cheekbones. They have various functions, such as protecting the skull in case of injury, keeping bacteria at bay, and allowing mucus to drain.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), several factors, including smoking and exposure to secondhand smoke, can increase the risk of developing a sinus infection. This is because smoking can cause the cilia — the hair-like structures that clear microbes and debris from the nose, sinuses, and lungs — to stop working. This may lead to infections such as sinusitis.

This article will explain whether smoking can cause sinus infections. It will also explain the symptoms of a sinus infection and how smoking can affect nose health.

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A sinus infection is a condition that causes swelling of the sinuses. Doctors also call it sinusitis or rhinosinusitis. Sinusitis is a common viral, bacterial, or fungal infection.

Smoking can lead to sinus infections because smoke is a common irritant. Microscopic hair-like structures called cilia line the nasal cavities. Cilia move along the nasal cavity alongside mucus that traps debris and microbes, preventing infections.

If the cilia stop working or become immobilized, a person may become predisposed to infections. Damage to the cilia in the nasal cavity can result from:

  • allergens
  • irritants such as smoke, secondhand smoke, animal dander, pollution, and dust
  • viruses
  • fungi
  • bacteria

Other possible causes of a sinus infection include previous colds, seasonal allergies, and a weak immune system.

Sinus infections can be either acute or chronic. An acute sinus infection may be part of a cold and last only a few days. A chronic sinus infection can last more than 8 weeks.

Symptoms of a sinus infection

Symptoms of a sinus infection include:

  • stuffy, blocked nose resulting from swelling of the nasal passages
  • nasal discharge, which is usually cloudy, green or yellow, or tinged with blood
  • runny nose
  • throbbing headache
  • facial pressure and pain, particularly around the eyes, forehead, and nose
  • postnasal drip, which is mucus dripping down the throat
  • sore throat
  • cough
  • bad breath

Most sinus infections get better without treatment.

Read about sinus infections here.

Cigarettes contain various toxic or poisonous substances such as tar, formaldehyde, arsenic, and benzene. As part of the respiratory system’s defense against pathogens and pollutants, the cilia transport debris, microbes, and other dangerous materials out of the airways.

The toxic substances in cigarette smoke can damage the cilia, leading to mucus buildup and delayed clearance. Over time, this can lead to bacteria buildup and, eventually, infections.

Smoking also harms the sinuses by:

  • impairing the tissue in the nasal cavity
  • diminishing cough reflex sensitivity
  • causing persistent damage to DNA, which can result in mutations and lack of repair
  • inducing cell death

Why is smoking bad for you?

Long-term effects of smoking on the nose can include:

  • structural and functional changes in the respiratory system
  • inflammation
  • obstruction of the airways
  • defects in the immune system
  • chronic dysfunction
  • tissue repair problems

Chronic sinusitis

Chronic sinusitis is a sinus infection that lasts longer than 8 weeks. Exposure to irritants such as smoking and secondhand cigarette smoke may contribute to the development of chronic sinusitis.

Other types of sinusitis are viral, bacterial, and allergic.

Read more about chronic sinusitis.

Nasal cancer

According to the American Cancer Society, smoking increases the risk of nasal and paranasal sinus cancers.

Smoking may damage the DNA of the cells that line the nasal cavity.

Quitting smoking can significantly affect overall health, including the health of the nose and nasal cavity.

A 2016 study found that quitting smoking improved mucus clearance ability in 33 participants with a median smoking history of 34 years. However, the study had some limitations, including its small sample size.

When a person quits smoking, the cilia in the nasal cavity will regenerate. This is an indication that the body is healing. It may take years, however.

When a person is quitting smoking, they may experience symptoms of nicotine withdrawal, including a runny nose.

According to the CDC, on average, people who smoke die 10 years earlier than those who do not. There are many benefits to quitting smoking, including improving overall health.

The health benefits of quitting smoking can begin the minute a person stops and continue over time.

Length of time after quittingHealth benefits
several minutes decreased heart rate
24 hourslower level of nicotine in the blood
several dayslower level of carbon monoxide in the blood
1 yeardecrease in symptoms such as shortness of breath and coughing
2 yearslower risk of heart attack
5–10 yearslower risk of certain cancers, such as bladder and kidney cancers

The benefits of quitting smoking can include:

  • reducing the risk of premature death and improving life expectancy
  • improving quality of life
  • reducing the risk of various health conditions, such as cardiovascular disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
  • reducing the risk of 12 types of cancer, including lung cancer
  • reducing the overall financial burden of smoking
  • reducing inflammation in the body
  • reducing the risk of stroke
  • reducing respiratory symptoms

Quitting smoking can be of great benefit for a person at any age, no matter how long they have smoked.

Read more about what happens when you quit smoking here.

Although quitting smoking can be challenging, with the right approach, it is possible to break the habit. A person may find the following methods helpful:

  • nicotine replacement therapies, such as:
    • gum
    • lozenges
    • patches
    • inhalers
    • nasal sprays
  • medications such as varenicline and bupropion
  • counseling services that can help a person make a plan to quit and cope with withdrawal symptoms when quitting
  • free resources and programs, such as those from the CDC

Read our tips on ways to quit smoking here.

Smoking can contribute to sinus infections because the toxins in cigarettes can damage the cilia in the nasal cavity. Cilia ensure that the nose, lungs, and sinuses are free of pathogens and mucus — without them, infections such as sinusitis are more likely to happen.

Smoking can affect a person’s overall health in various ways. No matter how long someone has smoked, quitting can provide various health benefits, including reducing the risk of serious health conditions and premature death.