Please note: This information was current at the time of publication but now may be out of date. This handout provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. 

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Am Fam Physician. 2004;70(9):1711-1712

What are sinuses?

Sinuses are open spaces behind the bones around your nose and eyes. The walls, or linings, of the sinuses make mucus. When you breathe air in through your nose, the mucus adds moisture to the air in your nose, traps dust, and helps fight infections.

What causes a sinus infection?

When the openings to the sinuses get blocked, mucus cannot move out of the nose. This can increase the chance of germs starting to grow inside the nose. The germs can cause an infection called sinusitis. Here are some things that can cause blocked sinuses or thick mucus:

  • Colds or upper respiratory infections

  • Hay fever or allergies

  • Air pollution and cigarette smoke

  • Nasal or dental procedures

  • Traveling at high altitudes

  • Swimming and diving under water

  • Cocaine use

  • Immune deficiencies, such as acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS)

  • Diabetes

How do I know if I have a sinus infection?

Cold symptoms that last longer than 7 to 10 days or that start to get better and then get worse again may be a sign of a sinus infection. You may have pain in your face or pain in your upper teeth. Other symptoms include a fever, tenderness over your face, and thick green or yellow mucus in your nose.

How are sinus infections treated?

Antibiotics usually are not needed to treat sinus infections. Most sinus infections get better in a few days. If your symptoms do not get better after 7 to 10 days, you may need an antibiotic. It is important to tell your doctor if you have taken antibiotics during the past 6 weeks, because that may affect the choice of medicine you take for this infection.

How can I make myself feel better?

Here are some things you can do to feel better if you have a sinus infection:

  • Get plenty of rest.

  • Apply moist heat by holding a warm, wet towel against your face.

  • Rinse inside your nose with salt water to remove extra mucus. Use over-the-counter nasal saline solutions or make your own salt water by adding 1/4 teaspoon of table salt to 1 cup of warm water. Mix well in a clean squeeze bottle. Squirt the salt water into each side of your nose 3 or 4 times a day.

  • Use over-the-counter pain medicines, such as ibuprofen (Advil), naproxen (Aleve), ketoprofen (Orudis KT), or acetaminophen (Tylenol).

  • Use over-the-counter decongestants (with pseudoephedrine). Decongestants can keep you awake, make you nervous, or raise your blood pressure or your pulse rate. Talk with your doctor before using decongestants if you have high blood pressure, heart disease, glaucoma, or an enlarged prostate gland.

If you use an over-the-counter nose spray with a decongestant in it, don’t use it for more than 3 days. If you use it any longer than 3 days, the swelling in your nose could get worse when you stop using the spray.

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