Prevent a sinus infection

10 Steps to Avoid Sinus Pain and Congestion

Sinus pain is one of the most common reasons people seek medical attention. Each year, more than 37 million Americans experience sinusitis symptoms like sinus pain, nasal congestion, and thick nasal discharge, according to the American Academy of Otolaryngology — Head and Neck Surgery. Those numbers are growing because of an increase in pollutants, along with a resistance to antibiotics.

What causes sinus pain and congestion? “The number one cause is allergies,” says Jyoti Gopal, MD, a family practice physician with the Lehigh Valley Health Network in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Some people have seasonal allergies and are bothered most during the spring and fall, when the pollen counts are high, she says, while others have year-round allergies that continually trigger their sinus pain and congestion.

The second leading cause is the common cold or flu, Dr. Gopal says. A cold, which is caused by a virus, can turn into a sinus infection. The cold virus attacks the lining of your sinuses, which respond by swelling; this results in narrowing of the drainage pathways in the sinuses and nose, according to the American Academy of Otolaryngology — Head and Neck Surgery. In response, you produce more mucus, which gets blocked in your swollen sinuses. Bacteria like to grow where the mucus builds up and sometimes cause a lingering sinus infection — an infection can linger even after the cold virus is gone.

Other causes of sinus pain, pressure, and congestion include:

  • Pollutants. Air pollution, cigarette smoke, and chemical irritants such as pesticide sprays and household cleaners can inflame the sinus linings.
  • Polyps. These are sac-like growths of inflamed tissue on the lining of the sinuses.
  • Anatomical issues. A structural problem such as a deviated septum or nasal bone spur can prevent mucus from draining out of the sinus, Gopal says.
  • Fungi. This is a growing problem, especially in people with weakened immune systems from conditions such as AIDS, leukemia, and diabetes. Fungi, just like bacteria, can cause a sinus infection, but will not respond to antibiotics. The most common fungus associated with sinusitis is aspergillus, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center.
  • Swimming or diving. These activities can increase your risk for sinusitis because of pressure changes in the nose and sinuses.

Sinus Pain and Congestion: How to Avoid It

Can you prevent sinus pain and congestion? Probably not altogether, Gopal says, but you can take these steps to keep infections and allergens at bay:

  1. Wash your hands frequently. This is especially important during cold weather, when viruses can live longer on doorknobs and other surfaces, Gopal says.
  2. Get a flu shot yearly. By preventing the flu, you may also prevent a sinus infection, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  3. Eat a well-balanced diet and get regular exercise. Staying in good health keeps your immune system on guard, according to Harvard Medical School.
  4. Quit smoking. Cigarette smoke can irritate sinuses, Harvard Medical School states.
  5. Use a humidifier. Dryness can lead to sinus pain. “You can run a hot shower and inhale the steam,” Gopal suggests. “Or put a steaming towel over your head — that’s an old remedy for relief from sinus pain.” If you use a humidification machine, make sure you clean it daily, following manufacturer’s directions, so that the humidifier itself does not become a source for sinus problems.
  6. Don’t overdo the antibiotics. Antibiotics will help if you have a bacterial infection, but they won’t do anything for viral infections. And if you take too many antibiotics, you can build up resistance to the medication, according to Harvard Medical School.
  7. Use a saline nasal solution. You can buy a saline solution at the drugstore or you can make your own by mixing 1/4 teaspoon of salt with 8 ounces of warm water. The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology recommends using iodide-free salt and distilled water (or pre-boiled and cooled water). If you are buying a premade saline drop, mist, or spray, make sure that it does not contain a decongestant.
  8. Try a neti pot. This nasal irrigation system, which comes from the ancient Ayurveda yoga tradition in India, has been used for centuries in the East and has become popular in the West in recent years. A neti pot allows a saline solution to be poured into the nasal passages, irrigating them to loosen mucus. You can find them at drugstores, nutrition centers, and health food stores. Be sure to follow directions to use only sterile, pre-boiled and cooled, or distilled water in your neti pot, Gopal says.
  9. Keep your windows closed. “If you have allergies, you don’t want to go outside or open the windows, especially between 5 a.m. and 10 a.m., because that’s when the pollen count is the highest,” Gopal says.
  10. Fight dust mites. Vacuum and wipe down all surfaces regularly, decrease clutter that can trap dust, and use dust mite covers on your pillows and mattresses.

Sinus pain can be worse for people with allergies and weakened immune systems, but following a healthy lifestyle and practicing good hygiene could save you from bothersome sinus pain and congestion.

10 Tips on How to Treat and Prevent Sinus Infections

You definitely don’t feel good, that much you know. But do you have a cold, or something else, like a sinus infection or irritation? Because there’s a difference, and one you should know. Sinusitis is a more technical term for infection or inflammation of the sinuses, which are the air chambers in the bone behind your cheeks, jaw and eyebrows. Normally, your sinuses are filled with air. But when you have a cold they become blocked and filled with fluid.

So, what’s the difference between a cold and sinus infection?

“The big difference between colds and sinusitis is how long they last,” says Jastin Antisdel, M.D., an ENT-otolaryngologist and director of Rhinology & Sinus Surgery at Saint Louis University in Saint Louis, Mo. Most colds taper off in 5-7 days but sinusitis symptoms last longer than 10 days. Sinusitis may also bring headaches, pain and pressure around the face and eyes, bad breath, pain in your upper teeth and colored nasal discharge. With colds, the discharge is often white or cloudy.

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Here’s how to prevent and treat sinus infections so you can spend more time feeling healthy:

1. Keep your distance: Limit your contact with people who are sick. Wash your hands often with soap and water — especially before you eat.

2. Irrigate your nose: Keep your nostrils moist with frequent use of saline sprays or washes.

3. Check your indoor air flow: Use a humidifier in your home if you have forced-air heat – the moisture helps mucus drain more effectively. But clean the humidifier often to protect against mold and other allergens.

4. Open the windows: Ventilate your house on days when the pollen count isn’t high. Stale air aggravates sinus problems.

5. Increase your hydration: Drink 8 to 10 glasses of water or fruit juice to lubricate your throat and keep mucus thin. Avoid alcohol and caffeine because they will dehydrate you.

6. Conserve your energy: Your body needs to get well — rest at least eight hours a day. Stay in bed or nap. Try lying down on your side or prop yourself up with a pillow to breathe easier.

7. Stay on top of allergy care: If you have allergies, avoid exposure to your trigger substances and try to manage your allergies as best as possible.

8. Avoid harsh fumes: Exposure to cigarette and cigar smoke and strong odors from chemicals can irritate and inflame nasal passages.

9. Be aware of pressure cooker conditions: You may notice pain in your head and nasal area during extreme changes in air pressure or temperature. (Not the best time for airplane travel!)

10. Find over-the-counter sinus-infection relief: When you have a cold you may want to take a decongestant and pain reliever for sinus pressure and pain or an expectorant for chest congestion.

“If you start to feel worse again after the cold started to get better (body aches, sore throat and fever are gone) but the pain and pressure is in your face and gets worse, and you have thick secretions coming out of your nose, that’s when you should see a doctor,” says Dr. Antisdel.

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Sinus Infection Prevention and Complications

Taking steps to avoid the common cold can help prevent you from getting a sinus infection.

Frequent handwashing and flu vaccination are two of many tactics to avoid a sinus infection.

Sinus infections most often develop after a viral respiratory infection, such as the common cold or the flu.

In such cases, the sinus infection usually resolves on its own after about a week. But some people develop a secondary bacterial sinus infection that may require antibiotic treatment.

Sinus infections may also become chronic, requiring prolonged treatment. Both acute and chronic sinus infections can have serious complications, potentially requiring more aggressive treatments. (1)

Take steps to prevent a sinus infection and with any luck you’ll avoid sinus infection complications and treatment.

Sinus Infection: Root Causes and Triggers

Sinus infections develop after nasal blockage (such as sinus inflammation, or sinusitis) cause mucus to get backed up in the nasal cavity and sinuses. This mucus becomes a breeding ground for infection-causing microbes.

While viral infections usually cause sinus infections, various other triggers can increase your risk of getting a sinus infection or worsen the infection.

These triggers or risk factors include:

  • Allergies
  • Abnormal growths inside the nose, called nasal polyps
  • Physical abnormalities, such as a deviated nasal septum (a bending of the wall between the two nostrils), trauma-related facial fractures that restrict the nasal passages, or scar tissue from surgery in the nasal area
  • Weakened immune system from diseases (such as uncontrolled diabetes or medications from HIV/AIDS) or treatments (chemotherapy)
  • Congenital diseases, such as cystic fibrosis that causes a buildup of mucus in the lungs and results in persistent lung infections
  • Asthma and other reactive diseases

Children who attend day care, suck on pacifiers, drink from bottles while lying down, and who are exposed to secondhand smoke are also at an increased risk of developing sinus infections. (2,3,4)

Getting control of these triggers, such as by treating your illnesses and reducing exposure to allergens like dust mites, animal dander, molds, and cockroaches, can help prevent sinus infections.

Preventing Viral Respiratory Infections That May Lead to Sinus Infections

Taking steps to avoid the common cold and flu can also help prevent sinus infections.

Aside from avoiding contact with someone who has an upper respiratory infection, you can also:

  • Wash your hands frequently, particularly before handling food (preparing or eating) and after using the bathroom, wiping your nose, and having physical contact with someone who has a cold or the flu.
  • Avoid touching your face, which may spread viruses on your hands.
  • Disinfect frequently used surfaces, such as doorknobs, computer keyboards, cell phones, and kitchen counter tops.
  • Keep your immune system strong by getting enough sleep, eating a healthy diet, exercising, and reducing stress.
  • Get the flu shot yearly.

If you do have a viral infection, you can help prevent spreading it to others by covering your nose and mouth when sneezing or coughing and staying home from work or school until you feel well. (5,6,7)

Preventing Sinus Infections

In addition to controlling triggers and reducing respiratory infections, you can further prevent sinus infections by promoting nasal drainage and keeping nasal passages clear.

Some suggestions include:

  • Avoid smoking and exposure to secondhand smoke and other airborne pollutants, which can irritate the sinuses (smoking also damages hair-like cells called cilia, which help move mucus).
  • Stay hydrated, to keep mucus thin and loose.
  • Avoid dry environments, and use a clean humidifier to moisten the air and help prevent your nasal passages from drying out (you can also inhale steam from a hot shower).
  • Use a neti pot, saline solution, or other nasal irrigation techniques frequently to clear mucus buildup and moisten the mucous membranes of the nasal passages and sinuses.
  • Blow your nose gently, one nostril at a time, to avoid irritating the nasal passages and launching viruses and bacteria into the sinuses.
  • Use antihistamines only when necessary and as directed (antihistamines thicken mucus, making it more difficult to drain)
  • Take decongestants if you have an upper respiratory infection, but only short-term (long-term use of nasal decongestants can worsen nasal stuffiness) (2,8,9)

Sinus Infection Symptom Soothers

If you do come down with a sinus infection, you will likely experience multiple symptoms, such as:

  • Nasal congestion and green-to-yellow nasal discharge
  • Sinus pain, pressure, or fullness in the face, including the ears and teeth
  • Headache and fever
  • Postnasal drip
  • Cough and sore throat
  • Fatigue
  • Bad breath

Some of the aforementioned preventive measures can also help ease some sinus infection symptoms, including using a humidifier (or steam), irrigating the nasal passages, and staying hydrated.

If you have a sore throat, you can also drink warm beverages, gargle with salt water, or suck on ice chips or ice pops. If you’re coughing, you can use nonmedicated lozenges or drink warm beverages with honey.

Additionally, a warm compress can help relieve sinus pain or pressure, including in the ear, as can over-the-counter pain relievers — Advil (ibuprofen, Tylenol (acetaminophen), and Aleve (naproxen). You should also avoid temperature extremes and sudden changes in temperature, as well as bending forward with your head down — these things can worsen sinus pain and pressure. (9,10)

Bromelain (a protein found in pineapple stems that’s sold as a supplement) may help reduce inflammation of the sinuses, and spicy foods (mustard, hot peppers, curry, horseradish, and wasabi) may help clear the sinuses.

No matter what the symptom, it’s important to get plenty of rest. (9,11)

Complications of Sinus Infections

Viral sinus infections typically resolve in 7 to 10 days.

One possible complication of this infection is a secondary bacterial sinus infection. Signs of a bacterial sinus infection include “double worsening” (symptoms that improve and then get worse again) and sinus infection symptoms that linger for more than 10 days. (1)

Decreased sense of smell is another common symptom of sinus infection, but this symptom may also be a complication. That is, chronic inflammation of the olfactory nerve can damage the nerve, affecting the sense of smell in the long term.

Sinus blockage can also lead to sinus mucoceles, or small cystic masses. These masses can become infected.

In very rare cases, sinus infections can spread to other structures.

The eye tissues can become infected, resulting in orbital cellulitis, or pus could build up behind the eye sockets (subperiosteal or orbital abscess).

In some cases, sinus infection can lead to an infection and clotting of nearby blood vessels, a condition called cavernous sinus thrombosis.

If the infection spreads through the skull, it can affect the brain, causing meningitis or brain abscesses. An infection of the underlying bone (osteomyelitis) also sometimes occurs.

The underlying skin may also become infected, leading to cellulitis or skin abscesses.

Some of these complications can be life-threatening and require immediate medical attention, including hospitalization, intravenous medications, or surgery. (9,11,12)

When you have a cold, you know it isn’t serious — even if you feel miserable. But how do you know if your runny nose, headache and nagging cough are actually signs of a sinus infection? While it’s true that many of the symptoms of both illnesses overlap, there are clues to help you tell the difference.

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Rhinologist Troy Woodard, MD, describes these illnesses and shares four questions you should ask yourself to decide which you have. He also offers tips for treating your symptoms.

Here’s what a cold looks like

A cold is a virus at work in your upper respiratory system (nose, mouth, throat and lungs). Adults typically get between two and four colds per year, Dr. Woodard says. You might have a cold if you have these symptoms:

  • Runny nose
  • Stuffy nose
  • Sneezing
  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Chest congestion
  • Watery eyes

How a sinus infection happens

Colds can progress to become sinus infections, but not all sinus infections are viral. Bacteria and even allergies also can cause sinus infections, says Dr. Woodard.

“A sinus infection occurs when the sinus lining becomes inflamed, preventing the sinuses from draining,” he says. “The trapped mucous becomes a breeding ground for bacteria, which can lead to a sinus infection.”

Conditions that may make you more likely to get a sinus infection, include:

  • Allergies
  • Nasal polyps (small growths occurring in your nasal lining)
  • Immunodeficiencies (conditions that impact how well your immune system works)

Ask yourself these questions to tell the difference

Since colds and sinus infections share similar symptoms, knowing which one you have is tricky. Dr. Woodard suggests that you consider these questions:

1. How long have you had symptoms? Cold symptoms typically peak after three to five days and then improve over the next week. A sinus infection can stick around longer, though. If you have a runny nose, stuffy nose or sinus pressure that lasts for more than 10 days, suspect an infection.

2. Do you have sinus pressure? If you have persistent facial pain, pressure or tenderness, you may have a sinus infection.

3. What color is your discharge? If you have clear mucous, you probably have a cold. If you have yellow or green mucous, it’s probably a sinus infection.

4. Do you have bad breath? If your breath has you reaching for a piece of gum, you could have a sinus infection.

Other symptoms of a sinus infection may include loss of smell and taste, cough, congestion, fever, headache, fatigue or aches in your upper jaw and teeth.

Ease your cold by treating symptoms

Since viruses can’t be cured, treating colds is primarily aimed at improving symptoms, Dr. Woodard says.

It’s important to remember that with colds and other viruses, taking an antibiotic won’t help you feel better any faster. In fact, taking an antibiotic unnecessarily can do more harm than good. The overuse of antibiotics can lead to antibiotic resistance, which can make subsequent infections more difficult to treat, he says.

Dr. Woodard’s tips?

“Get plenty of rest, stay hydrated and rinse out your sinuses with saline irrigation, which can help thin mucous and flush it from your nasal cavity.”

When a sinus infection won’t quit

While it’s true that sinus infections sometimes clear on their own, antibiotics can sometimes shorten their duration, says Dr. Woodard.

Talk with your doctor if your symptoms don’t subside within 10 days, or if you have persistent fevers, facial swelling or neck stiffness, he says.

As with colds, rest, proper hydration and nasal irrigation can ease sinus infection symptoms.

How to treat a sinus infection

People may be able to treat a sinus infection at home by relieving painful symptoms and taking steps to allow the immune system to fight off the infection.

Home remedies for a sinus infection include:

Over-the-counter medications

Share on PinterestTaking OTC drugs may help relieve painful symptoms.

People can take over-the-counter (OTC) drugs, such as:

  • acetaminophen
  • ibuprofen
  • naproxen
  • aspirin

These may help relieve symptoms including localized pain, fever, and headaches.

Nasal sprays

People can use OTC nasal sprays to reduce swelling and congestion in the nasal passages.

However, people should take care when using nasal sprays, particularly certain types of decongestant nasal spray. Misusing nasal sprays may cause side effects.

Using a decongestant nasal spray such as oxymetazoline (Afrin) for too long could make congestion levels worse, so people should not use them for longer than the recommended duration outlined on the packaging.

There are also corticosteroid nasal sprays, such as triamcinolone (Nasacort), available over the counter. These sprays help reduce sinus inflammation and swelling and are safe when a person uses them as a doctor directs.

It is important to follow product advice carefully to avoid nosebleeds or other adverse side effects. If a person has an existing medical condition or they are pregnant, it is best to speak to a doctor before using nasal sprays.


People can use a humidifier to add moisture to the air. Extra moisture can help soften dried mucus, allowing it to flow more easily and reduce congestion.

Nasal irrigation

Nasal irrigation may help get rid of a sinus infection. A 2016 study found that people who used nasal irrigation had fewer headaches and were less likely to need OTC medicines than those who did not.

People can use a neti pot, which is a small container with a spout, for nasal irrigation.

It is important not to use water straight from the tap in a neti pot. Tap water is safe to drink because the stomach acid kills off the bacteria or parasites present. The nose environment cannot kill these types of germs, so using a neti pot with tap water may cause or aggravate an infection.

People should make sure to boil the water for a few minutes and let it cool, or they can buy distilled water for use in a neti pot.

It is simple to make an irrigation solution for use with a neti pot or syringe. To irrigate the nose:

  • mix half a teaspoon of noniodized salt with half a teaspoon of baking soda
  • stir the mixture into 2 cups of sterile water
  • use a small syringe or neti pot to apply the solution
  • repeat for both nostrils
  • clean the neti pot or syringe after use with sterile water and dry thoroughly

People can also buy a nasal irrigation solution from a pharmacy or online.

Steam inhalation

Although there is not enough evidence to show that steam inhalation is an effective treatment for a sinus infection, many people may find that it helps relieve their symptoms.

To use steam inhalation to relieve sinus infection symptoms, people can lean over a bowl of hot water, place a towel over their head to keep the steam in, and breathe deeply.

People may want to add one or two drops of essential oil, such as eucalyptus oil, to the water. Eucalyptus oil has anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties that may help fight the infection.

People can purchase eucalyptus essential oil in health food stores and online.


People should try to get as much rest as they can while they have a sinus infection. This will help the body recover and allow it to spend its energy fighting the infection.

Staying at home and resting can also help prevent spreading the infection to other people.


Drinking plenty of clear fluids will help people stay hydrated and can also help loosen mucus and clear congestion.

Good choices for fluids to drink when a person has a sinus infection include:

  • plain water
  • hot water with lemon, honey, or ginger
  • herbal teas
  • vegetable broth

Warm compresses

Applying a warm compress to the face can help ease pain and relieve pressure from the blocked sinuses.

To make a warm compress, soak a facecloth in hot water, wring it out, and place it on the affected areas of the face.

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