Sinusitis FAQ & Medical Terms


Common Medical Terms

  • Clear discharge is considered normal. When the mucus from your nose takes on a thick green or yellow color, this can be an indicator of an infection.1

  • Acute sinusitis is a sinus infection that lasts less than four weeks, causing the sinuses to become inflammed and swollen, and may make it difficult to breathe. It is usually caused by a virus, such as a cold, but can be caused by bacteria. The symptoms often include facial pain or pressure, nasal congestion/obstruction, discolored nasal discharge, headaches, and other symptoms of sinusitis. Acute sinusitis usually clears up within a week to 10 days, unless it’s caused by a bacterial infection. In that case, acute sinusitis often responds well to antibiotics.2,5

  • Caused by an allergic reaction, allergic rhinitis (hay fever) may be triggered by pollen, pet dander, mold, dust mites, smoke and other allergens. It can seem like a cold, with symptoms that include sneezing, a runny nose, itchy eyes, congestion and a cough (caused by postnasal drip). If you or someone you know gets seasonal allergy flare-ups, its medical name is allergic rhinitis.3

  • The American Rhinologic Society is a medical community whose mission is to serve, represent and advance the science and ethical practice of rhinology, which focuses on the nose and sinuses. They aim to promote excellence in patient care, research and education.4

  • Antibiotics are drugs that can be used to treat sinusitis when the infection is due to bacteria. However, it’s important to note that many common colds are viral in nature and will resolve within 7-10 days without the use of antibiotics. Over-prescribing antibiotics can lead to antibiotic resistance. Chronic sinusitis may be treated with antibiotics, but is only effective if there is a bacterial cause for the infection.5

  • Anatomical deviations or variations of the sinus structure that may cause sinusitis include a deviated septum, nasal polyps, congenital narrowed paranasal passages, enlarged tonsils and adenoids and cleft palate.6

  • An antihistamine is a drug commonly used to treat symptoms of allergies that reacts against histamine, a chemical created by the body’s immune system. Histamine can cause symptoms such as coughing, wheezing and watery eyes when it overreacts to an allergen like pollen or pet dander, leading to an allergic reaction. Antihistamines block the action of histamines, helping alleviate allergic symptoms.7

  • Asthma is a chronic condition, characterized by inflammation of airways in the lungs. Common symptoms are shortness of breath, chest tightness, wheezing, and coughing.  It may be caused by allergies, exposure to dust, fumes or other irritants, or other medical conditions.8

  • Bacterial infections can grow when the sinuses are blocked and full of mucus.  They can be caused by strep throat, staph Infections, Haemophilus influenzae and Moraxella catarrhalis. Symptoms can be facial pain and a pus-like nasal discharge, that persist for longer than a week and that are not responding to over-the-counter (OTC) nasal medications. Bacterial sinusitis is usually treated with antibiotics.9

  • A minimally invasive sinus procedure, balloon sinus dilation is used to open up the sinus pathways and is usually performed in the office. It can also be done in the operating room by an ear, nose and throat (ENT) surgeon. A small balloon catheter is inserted into the sinuses and expanded to open the sinus pathways, then removed. The procedure is usually performed in the office under local anesthesia, but can also be done in the operating room under general anesthesia by an ENT surgeon.10

  • When sinusitis symptoms last 12 weeks or longer, the condition is considered chronic sinusitis. Common symptoms include facial pain or pressure, nasal congestion/obstruction, a reduced or lost sense of smell and taste, headaches, postnasal drip and more.11 Treating chronic sinusitis can be challenging, and can involve medical therapy with antibiotics, intranasal steroids, oral steroids and decongestants. When medical therapy doesn’t work, sufferers typically seek sinus surgery or balloon sinus dilation. People suffering from chronic sinusitis should seek medical help from an ENT.12

  • The terms chronic rhinosinusitis and chronic sinusitis are used interchangeably. They both refer to sinusitis symptoms lasting 12 weeks or longer. Symptoms typically include facial pain or pressure, post nasal drip, nasal discharge, cough, toothache, fatigue, ear pain, loss of smell and taste and bad breath. People with CRS should seek medical help from an ENT.12

  • These tiny hairlike structures are found in the nasal cavities’ mucus membranes. Their purpose is to move particles that become trapped in mucus out of the nose.13

  • Also called intranasal steroids (corticosteroid sprays – INCS), corticosteroid nasal sprays can help to reduce swelling and mucus in the nose and ease symptoms. They are not the same as fast-acting nasal sprays, which are not intended for long-term use. Corticosteroid nasal sprays can take a day or several days (or longer) to reduce the symptoms. Commonly prescribed nasal sprays are Flonase (fluticasone propionate), Nasonex (mometasone furoate), and Rhinocort (budesonide).14, 23

  • An acronym for computerized tomography, a CT scan provides greater detail than a regular X-ray. It does this by combining multiple X-ray images from a variety of angles. These are processed by a computer to produce cross-sectional views of an area and to show more detailed views of the bones, blood vessels and soft tissues. CT scans are also called CAT scans.15

  • Decongestants shrink blood vessels and tissues to reduce swelling and decrease mucus production. Common decongestants include nasal sprays like Afrin (oxymetazoline) and oral decongestants like Sudafed (pseudoephedrine). Doctors typically recommend patients don’t use nasal spray decongestants for more than three days, as this can lead to dependence and/or rebound stuffiness.16, 17

  • The bone and cartilage that divide the nasal cavity of the nose is called the nasal septum. When it is crooked or significantly off center ─ or deviated ─ it’s called a deviated septum. A person is either born with a deviated septum or develops it after an injury or trauma to the nose. The condition can make breathing difficult and can cause congestion and recurrent sinus infections. Sometimes, the symptoms can be relieved by medications. When medications don’t provide sufficient relief, patients sometimes turn to surgery to correct the deviation.18

  • An endoscope allows healthcare professionals to look into a body cavity or organ. It is a thin tube with a light and small camera on the end that transmits images. The tube is either flexible or rigid, depending on the procedure. The endoscope gets inserted through a small incision in the body or a natural opening, such as a nostril or the mouth.19

  • One of the most common procedures to help chronic sinusitis; this surgery is performed by an ENT specialist in the comfort of an office with local anesthesia or in a hospital setting under general anesthesia. The doctor inserts a small, lighted camera (an endoscope) into the sinuses. ,Small tools are then used to remove any blockages and to open the sinuses.10

  • ENT is the acronym for an ear, nose and throat doctor. Also known as an otolaryngologist (pronounced oh-toe-lair-in-goll-oh-jist), an ENT specializes in the diagnosis, surgery, medical treatment and management of disorders in the ear, nose, throat, as well as cancers to the head and neck. ENTs treat sinus, hearing, balance and communication disorders.20

  • One of the four sinuses, the ethmoid sinus is located between the eyes, behind the bridge of the nose. It is a collection of small air cavities with thin walls that make the bone seem spongy. The ethmoid sinus is present at birth and continues to grow.21

  • FESS refers to “functional endoscopic sinus surgery.” This type of surgery removes thin bones and mucous membranes that may block the sinuses from draining properly.10

  • One of the four sinuses, the frontal sinus is the air-filled cavity located between the eyebrows. The frontal sinus is not developed at birth, but develops around seven years old.21

  • Humidifiers are devices that add moisture to the air to prevent dryness that may cause irritation to the ears, nose and throat. They are commonly used to ease symptoms of colds, flu and sinus infections.22

  • The maxillary is one of the four types of sinuses. It is an air-filled cavity located under each eye behind the cheeks. It is present at birth and continues to grow.21

  • When a condition or cause of a disease or medical issue is identified and treated incorrectly, this is considered a misdiagnosis.24

  • Medication (or drug) interactions describe how drugs, supplements, over the counter medicines and prescription medications a patient is taking react to each other. These interactions can cause harmful side effects or cause the drug to be less effective or more potent, which is why it is especially important to discuss with your doctor.25

  • A mucous membrane is the moist lining of the nasal cavity that is rich with blood vessels enabling the nose to warm and humidify air. Mucus is important for lubricating and for trapping germs and allergens to remove them from the airway.  This action helps to clean the air before it goes to the lungs. 13

  • Nasal irrigation kits are small machines using either powered suction or flushing systems, both use a saline solution to aid in removing dirt and other irritants from the nasal passageways. They provide temporary relief from colds, sinus infections and allergies.26

  • Nasal polyps are soft, non-cancerous growths that form on the lining of the nasal passages (mucosa) or sinuses as a result of chronic inflammation, asthma, recurring infection, allergies, drug sensitivity or certain immune response. They might not cause symptoms or discomfort, but if they become large, they can block the sinuses and prevent normal drainage. This can cause mucus to build up and lead to infections. Nasal polyps can also contribute to chronic sinusitis. Treatments for nasal polyps include medications and surgery. Even with surgery, however, the nasal polyps can return.27

  • An otolaryngologist is an ear, nose and throat specialist. Otolaryngologists have to pass the American Board of Otolaryngology exam and can then elect to train in one or more of the following sub-specialties within the ENT field: allergy, facial plastic and reconstructive surgery, head and neck (cancers and tumors in the head and neck), laryngology (throat), otology/neurotology (ears, balance, and tinnitus), pediatric otolaryngology (children), rhinology (nose) and sleep disorders.20

  • As the name implies, OTC sinusitis medications are remedies sold over the counter, so they don’t require a prescription. They include saline-based remedies and decongestants.28

  • Pollutants are irritants in the environment that can have undesired effects. Breathing in pollutants may affect the integrity of sinus and nasal airways.29

  • The mucus in the nose and throat that drains down the back of the throat is called postnasal drip. Typically, this mucus gets swallowed without notice. Sometimes, the amount of mucus increases, builds up or thickens due to congestion, sinus infections, colds, flu, allergies or hormonal changes. Postnasal drip can cause coughing, sore throats and problems swallowing.30

  • Purulent discharge is a cloudy or colored (often greenish-gray or yellow) mucus. Both viral and bacterial infections can cause nasal mucus to change colors.31

  • Respiratory infections (which includes the common cold) occur in the lungs, chest, throat, and sinuses and commonly plague people in the winter months when they are spending more time indoors. Respiratory infections have the potential to develop into more serious conditions like sinus infections.32

  • People use saline nasal irrigation to cleanse the nose and sinuses of mucus and small particles, bacteria and viruses. This can be helpful to reduce symptoms of allergies and sinus infections. Healthcare practitioners often recommend saline nasal irrigation to provide relief from sinusitis symptoms, and to assist with healing after sinus surgery.26

  • Sinuses are connected by a system of cavities in the skull. They help filter and moisten air as it moves through the nose and sinuses, as well as remove unwanted particles and debris.13

  • Sinuses drain naturally down the throat and into the stomach, so when a person swallows, they swallow some mucus.  Excessive mucus and discomfort can occur when there is an infection, dehydration, allergies, dry air or from certain medications.30

  • When inflammation in the sinus cavities prevents air and mucus from flowing naturally, the sinuses become blocked. Pressure changes within the sinus cavities can cause a sinus headache, which can include pain and pressure in the forehead, cheeks and brows.33

  • A sinus infection occurs when the normal drainage of the sinuses is blocked, usually due to swelling caused by infection or injury. When you have a sinus infection, you may have a headache, facial pain or pressure, a clogged nose and other cold symptoms. The terms sinus infection and sinusitis are often used interchangeably. A sinus infection may clear up on its own or require medical care, depending on whether its cause is viral or bacterial.33,38

  • The sinus lining is lined with a mucus membrane that produce mucus and have cilia, (tiny hairlike projections).  The sinus lining produces mucus, which keeps the sinuses moist and traps germs, dust and other particulates. The cilia work to capture and “sweep” the foreign bodies into the mucus, so they can be removed (by sneezing, blowing the nose or draining down the throat). With chronic sinusitis, the sinus lining becomes inflamed and thickened.13

  • The sinus ostia are the tiny openings that allow air and mucus into the sinuses. When an ostium becomes blocked, air can’t get into the sinus and mucus can’t get out. If mucus does not drain properly, bacteria can build up in the mucus.34

  • When a person suffers from sinusitis (acute or chronic), the sinus inflammation, mucus build-up and inability to circulate air can result in sinus pressure in the face or head.33 Changing altitudes ─ such as one might experience while flying ─ can increase this pressure and create pain.35

  • Performed by an ENT to treat chronic sinusitis, sinus surgery is typically recommended if medical therapy has failed to address symptoms. The goal of surgery is to open up the sinuses, remove diseased tissue and bone and improve airflow and drainage. Sinus surgery also allows for easier access to deliver topical therapy to inflamed tissue after surgery.10

  • Sinusitis is the inflammation of the sinus membranes. It can be acute, usually starting with a virus, such as a cold, and lasting four weeks or less. Or it can be chronic sinusitis, lasting for 12 weeks or more. Sometimes sinusitis can be caused by bacteria. The symptoms of sinusitis range from annoying to painful. Sinusitis will often clear up on its own, unless it is caused by bacteria  and then you may eventually need antibiotics. Chronic sinusitis will not clear up on its own and requires proper diagnosis and treatment.33,38

  • Sleep apnea is a potentially serious condition where you repeatedly stop and start breathing while asleep. Very loud snoring, particularly when it’s coupled with intermittent silences and then gasps for air, is a sign that you may have sleep apnea. People with sleep apnea are often tired after a full night’s sleep and experience excessive daytime fatigue.36

  • One of the four pairs of sinuses, the sphenoid sinus is located in the middle of the skull, behind the top of the nasal cavity.21

  • Surgical navigation is image-guided sinus surgery. In order to accurately guide doctors as they navigate patients’ unique sinus anatomy, an innovative advancement in endoscopic sinus surgery, called image-guided sinus surgery, was introduced. This procedure is very precise, thanks to a “map” of the patient’s own sinuses that’s created in advance.37

  • Most sinus infections are caused by viruses. Viruses are passed from one person to another, so if someone has a viral sinus infection, they can pass the bug to you. However, you may not develop the same symptoms.38 The common cold is caused by viruses, and these viruses can cause a sinus infection to develop.32 Viruses can be contagious for as little as a few days or as long as a week or more, and you can spread a virus even before you’re showing any symptoms of being sick.38

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a sinus infection?

Sinusitis is inflammation or swelling of the sinus cavities that blocks airflow and drainage. When the sinuses don’t drain properly and mucus stops flowing, the sinuses get backed up. This is the ideal breeding ground for viruses, bacteria, and fungi. It may be a temporary sinus infection, often caused by a cold/virus or bacteria or chronic sinusitis which persists for 12 weeks or more.1,2

What causes a sinus infection?

Causes include allergies, respiratory infections, such as a cold and nasal polyps, bacterial infections and anatomical problems like a deviated septum.1

What are the symptoms of a sinus infection?

Sinusitis can make it difficult to breathe through the nose. People suffering from acute or chronic sinusitis often also experience the following: facial pain and pressure, nasal congestion and blockage, lost or reduced sense of smell and/or taste, headaches and postnasal drip. Sinusitis symptoms often get misdiagnosed as other conditions. Respiratory infections like a cold share similar symptoms.1,2

Are sinus infections contagious?

A viral sinus infection isn’t contagious, although the virus that caused it can be passed from one person to another. A bacterial sinus infection can’t be spread. Environmental factors or allergies can also cause a sinus infection and are not transmittable. You will need to visit a healthcare professional to distinguish your symptoms and determine if your sinus infection is viral or bacterial.4

How long does a sinus infection last?

An acute sinus infection can last anywhere from several days to several weeks. If your infection persists 12 weeks or longer, you may be dealing with chronic sinusitis.5

How do I get rid of a sinus infection?

There are several over-the-counter and at home remedies such as decongestants and nasal sprays or irrigations that may ease symptoms and prevent the chance of needing stronger medications. It is also important to get rest, drink plenty of fluids and try rinses and nasal sprays or irrigations. If your symptoms are severe or last longer than a week, you may want to see your primary care doctor.1,2

How do I get my sense of taste and smell back after a sinus infection?

A decreased sense of taste and smell is not uncommon with a sinus infection.1 However, there is no set timeframe of when your senses will fully return, but most people see improvement as the infection clears.6

How is a sinus infection treated?

Over-the-counter and prescription medicines are often used to treat sinus infections. Your doctor may prescribe medicine or recommend other treatment, or refer you to an ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist. They are experts in sinus infections and related conditions, and they often get involved in particularly persistent or severe cases.1,2

How can sinus pain be relieved?

For many, trying home remedies for sinusitis is an easy place to start. Home remedies may include decongestants, antihistamines, saline nasal irrigation with a squeeze bottle, a Neti pot or saline sprays to moisten the nasal pathways and break up mucus. Medical therapy for sinusitis typically involves antibiotics to treat infection and/or oral or nasal steroids to treat inflammation. These methods are not intended for long-term use.1,2

Is a fever common with a sinus infection?

While not common, it is possible to have a fever during a sinus infection. Since a fever indicates that the body is fighting an infection, you should see a doctor if experiencing fever.2,7, 25

Can sinus infections cause dizziness?

Facial pressure and discomfort are common with sinus infections as the sinuses become clogged with mucus. The ears may also become clogged with mucus, which can make hearing difficult and cause you to feel off- balance and dizziness.8

Where are the sinuses located?

The sinuses are four pairs of air-filled cavities in the bones surrounding the nose and eyes. The sinuses work together to warm or cool inhaled air, humidify it and remove dust and allergens.1

How is a sinus infection diagnosed?

A sinus infection is often misdiagnosed as a cold or allergies.  Sinus infections are common, but if they don’t go away quickly on their own, they can require medical attention. The first step to appropriate treatment is accurate diagnosis, which is performed by a doctor.5

How can sinus infections be prevented?

There are a few things that may lessen your chances of inflaming your sinuses. A flu shot is a good idea as sinus infections often go hand in hand with viruses. If you are allergy-prone, reduce your exposure to allergy triggers like dust mites, animal dander, molds and insects. Wash your hands frequently. Getting enough sleep, eating healthy, exercising and reducing stress can bolster the immune system, so it can fight off potential infections.9

Does Covid feel like a sinus infection?

While Covid and sinus infections have some symptoms in common, everyone experiences those symptoms differently and at varying degrees. For a proper diagnosis, you may want to see a doctor.10 

Can allergies cause a sinus infection?

Both allergies and sinusitis can involve congestion of the nose and breathing passages, and both may cause runny nose, excess mucus, etc. Sinusitis is usually caused by a viral infection, such as a cold. It may also be caused by other infections, such as bacteria. Your doctor can analyze your symptoms and recommend the proper course of treatment.11

What can I expect from sinus surgery?

Sinus surgery widens the sinus openings to allow air to circulate and mucus to drain. One of the most common types of surgery for chronic sinusitis is a minimally invasive procedure called endoscopic sinus surgery (ESS). It is typically performed in the hospital under general anesthesia and most patients may resume normal activities in a few days.12

What can happen if infected sinuses are not treated?

If left untreated, sinusitis may affect quality of life. Pain and discomfort will not subside until the infection clears. On rare occasions, the infection may not clear on its own and could potentially lead to serious complications. An ENT will be able to diagnose the root cause of the sinus infection and provide appropriate treatment.13

What are the symptoms of acute sinusitis?

Acute sinusitis is a temporary sinus infection, often caused by a cold/virus or bacteria. It typically lasts less than four weeks, and often clears up on its own. Symptoms include facial pain and pressure, nasal congestion and blockage, lost or reduced sense of smell and/or taste, headaches, and postnasal drip.1,2

How do I prepare for sinus surgery?

Your ENT doctor will give you instructions. The instructions will include information on what medications to take leading up to the sinus surgery, including any new medications prescribed to reduce inflammation. You should stop smoking at least three weeks before surgery and continue not smoking for at least a month afterward. The day before your surgery, you won’t be able to eat anything after midnight. This is because anesthesia can only be done on an empty stomach.14

What do nasal rinses and sprays do?

Medicated corticosteroid nasal sprays, such as Flonase®, Afrin® and RHINOCORT®, can be purchased over-the-counter or with a doctor’s prescription. The chemicals in these sprays mimic the body’s natural hormones which help to fight inflammation. When the sinus tissue is inflamed and causing blockage, steroids can help reduce swelling, enabling the patient to breathe better.15,16 Saline sprays do not include corticosteroids. They do not have any medicated ingredients. Nasal rinsing involves pouring saltwater through one nostril and letting it drain the sinuses and exit the other nostril.15 

How is a sinus infection diagnosed?

Most patients with sinus symptoms are initially treated by their primary care doctor. In some cases, such as with particularly severe, recurring, or long-lasting symptoms, patients are referred to ear-nose-throat (ENT) doctors. ENT doctors are specialists in diagnosing and treating afflictions such as sinus disorders.1

Do I need to see an ENT?

Each sinus condition is unique. An ENT specialist will have extensive experience determining what exact condition you have whether it’s allergies, a common cold, or sinus infection and what the best course of action is. If you have sinus symptoms that aren’t going away or that keep returning, a visit to the ENT may be the next appropriate step to take so you can get the appropriate evaluation and treatment.1

What is balloon dilation/sinuplasty?

Balloon dilation, also known as balloon sinuplasty, is a procedure to open blocked sinus passages without cutting or tissue removal. The procedure is usually performed in the office under local anesthesia, but can be done in the operating room under general anesthesia by an ENT surgeon.  First made available in the United States in 2005, balloon sinuplasty can be an effective tool for restoring drainage to some of the sinuses.17

Can sinus infections cause a cough?

Sinus infections may cause a cough. When mucus is thicker than normal and it backs up in the throat, it may make the throat itch and/or cause coughing.18

Why is nasal congestion worse at night?

One possibility is that the change in blood flow may increase inflammation. When you lie down, blood pressure changes and blood may remain in the upper body longer than it does when you sit or stand. In addition, the pull of gravity on the body’s internal tissues can compress blood vessels in the sinuses. This can cause tissue to swell up, leading to worse nasal symptoms.19

Can sinusitis cause snoring?

Snoring may be caused by sinusitis. Treating the underlying condition may reduce snoring.  If you suffer from nasal congestion, snoring, or suspect sleep apnea, some ENTs specialize in treatment of these conditions.20

Can sinusitis worsen asthma?

Asthma is a chronic condition in which the airways of the lungs can become inflamed and narrow. It causes shortness of breath, chest tightness, wheezing, and coughing.  It may be triggered by allergies, exposure to dust, fumes or other irritants, or other medical conditions.21 Since the sinuses and lung airways are connected, having sinusitis may make asthma harder to control. Treating inflammation of the sinus passages may help alleviate asthma in patients suffering from both conditions.21,22

What are nasal polyps?

Nasal polyps are small growths inside the nose that hang down from the lining of the nasal passages as a result of chronic inflammation. They are pain-free and noncancerous. They may not even cause any problems if they’re small. If they’re bigger though, they may block the airway and cause a variety of symptoms that lead to sinusitis.  See your doctor if your symptoms last more than 10 days.23

What is an ENT specialist?

“ENT” stands for “ear, nose, throat.” ENT specialists—also known as otolaryngologists—are doctors with a wealth of highly specific training and experience. While primary care doctors are absolutely crucial as the first line of defense against all kinds of illness, ENT specialists focus on the sinuses in detail. This means they are the most qualified professionals to see when you have a chronic or a complicated problem with these interconnected parts of the body, and a good person to see if you have chronic sinusitis.24

Do I need antibiotics to treat my sinus infection?

Sinusitis can be caused by several underlying issues including allergens, viruses, fungi, and bacteria. Treatment for a sinus infection will change depending on what’s causing the symptoms. Antibiotics are not recommended for every sinus infection since they work only on bacterial infections—not on allergies, fungal infections or viruses.25

Do I have chronic sinusitis?

Chronic sinusitis, also called chronic rhinosinusitis, is a particularly persistent type of sinusitis. If it lasts for 12 weeks or longer, it’s considered chronic sinusitis. If it is an isolated case that goes away on its own within a few weeks, it is called acute sinusitis. Chronic sinusitis can affect your quality of life. It may cause discomfort, trouble breathing through your nose, problems sleeping, and other issues.2, 3