What Are Sinuses?
Sinuses are moist air spaces in the bones of the face around the nose. There are four sets of sinuses —in the cheekbones, forehead, between the eyes, and behind the eyes and nasal passages. They’re lined with the same mucous membranes that line the nose and airways.
What Is a Sinus Infection?
When sinuses get irritated and inflamed, it’s called sinusitis (syne-yuh-SYE-tis). Inflammation in the sinuses can come from:
- germs, such as a virus or bacteria, in which case it’s called a sinus infection
- tobacco smoke or other air pollutants
What Causes Sinus Infections?
When a person has a viral respiratory illness (like a cold or the flu) or allergies, their nasal passages and sinus tissues get inflamed. This means they swell and make more mucus. If the swollen sinuses can’t drain, they can get blocked, trapping mucus inside them. Germs can grow there and lead to a sinus infection.
Sometimes other things can block the sinuses and lead to a sinus infection, like enlarged adenoids or nasal polyps (small growths of tissue inside the nose).
What Are the Signs & Symptoms of a Sinus Infection?
Sinus infection symptoms can look like those of a simple cold, such as a stuffy or runny nose or a cough that gets worse at night. But a cold and the viral sinus infection that happens with it usually get better without treatment in about 7–10 days.
Symptoms that last longer than that or get worse about a week after the cold starts can be a sign of a bacterial sinus infection. Kids with a bacterial sinus infection also might have:
- a fever that starts after their cold symptoms got better
- bad breath
- nausea and poor appetite
- pain or pressure in the face (which also can be felt in the ears, teeth, or throat)
- in teens, a headache or pain behind the eyes. Cold-related headaches in young kids usually aren’t sinus infections. That’s because the sinuses in the forehead and behind the eyes don’t start developing until kids are about 7 years old or older, and they aren’t formed enough to get infected until the early teen years.
Rarely, a bacterial sinus infection can start suddenly, with a high fever and stuffy nose that lasts for 3–4 days in a child who looks very ill.
Are Sinus Infections Contagious?
Sinus infections aren’t contagious, but they often happen after a person has a cold, and that illness can spread to family and friends.
How Are Sinus Infections Treated?
Many sinus infections are caused by viruses and usually go away without medical treatment. To help with pain, you can apply warm compresses to the area and give acetaminophen or ibuprofen. Do not give aspirin to children who have a viral illness, as such use is linked to Reye syndrome, which can be life-threatening.
Over-the-counter saline (saltwater) solution is safe and helps wash the inside of the nose and relieve congestion.
If they think that bacteria might be causing a sinus infection, doctors might wait for a few days to see if it clears up on its own or they may prescribe antibiotics.
Can Sinus Infections Be Prevented?
Not all sinus infections can be prevented. But some can be avoided by treating allergies when they cause symptoms and taking steps to avoid catching a cold. Teach kids to:
- Avoid sick people.
- Wash their hands well and often.
- Not share towels, drinking glasses, or eating utensils with someone who has a cold.
- Not pick up other people’s used tissues.
You also can use a humidifier during the winter to keep home humidity at 45%–50%. This stops dry air from irritating the sinuses and make them less of a target for infection. Clean your humidifier often to prevent mold growth.
When Should I Call the Doctor?
If your child gets a fever 7–10 days after cold symptoms begin, it could be a sign of a sinus infection or another infection (such as pneumonia or an ear infection). Call the doctor if your child has:
- a cold that lasts for more than 7–10 days without getting better
- a cold that seems to be getting worse after 7 days of symptoms
- allergy symptoms that don’t clear with the usual allergy medicine