Doctor, what is Sinusitis?

Insight into normal and abnormal secretions

Sinus Facts

Have you ever had a cold or allergy attack that wouldn't go away? If so, there's a good chance you actually had sinusitis. Experts estimate that 37 million people are afflicted with sinusitis each year, making it one of the most common health conditions in America. That number may be significantly higher, since the symptoms of bacterial sinusitis often mimic those of colds or allergies, and many sufferers never see a doctor for proper diagnosis and treatment with an antibiotic.

What is sinusitis?

Acute bacterial sinusitis is an infection of the sinus cavities caused by bacteria. It usually is preceded by a cold, allergy attack, or irritation by environmental pollutants. Unlike a cold, or allergy, bacterial sinusitis requires a physician's diagnosis and treatment with an antibiotic to cure the infection and prevent future complications.

Normally, mucus collecting in the sinuses drains into the nasal passages. When you have a cold or allergy attack, your sinuses become inflamed and are unable to drain. This can lead to congestion and infection. Diagnosis of acute sinusitis usually is based on a physical examination and a discussion of your symptoms. Your doctor also may use x-rays of your sinuses or obtain a sample of your nasal discharge to test for bacteria.

When Acute Becomes Chronic Sinusitis

When you have frequent sinusitis, or the infection lasts three months or more, it could be chronic sinusitis. Symptoms of chronic sinusitis may be less severe than those of acute; however, untreated chronic sinusitis can cause damage to the sinuses and cheekbones that sometimes requires surgery to repair.

Treating Sinusitis

Bacterial Sinusitis

Therapy for bacterial sinusitis should include an appropriate antibiotic. If you have three or more symptoms of sinusitis (see chart), be sure to see your doctor for diagnosis. In addition to an antibiotic, an oral or nasal spray or drop decongestant may be recommended to relieve congestion, although you should avoid prolonged use of nonprescription nasal sprays or drops. Inhaling steam or using saline nasal sprays or drops can help relieve sinus discomfort.

Antibiotic Resistance

Antibiotic resistance means that some infection-causing bacteria are immune to the effects of certain antibiotics prescribed by your doctor. Antibiotic resistance is making even common infections, such as sinusitis, challenging to treat. You can help prevent antibiotic resistance. If the doctor prescribes an antibiotic, it is important that you take all of the medication just as your doctor instructs, even if your symptoms are gone before the medicine runs out.

Chronic Sinusitis

If your doctor thinks you have chronic sinusitis, intensive antibiotic therapy may be prescribed. Surgery is sometimes necessary to remove physical obstructions that may contribute to sinusitis.

Sinus Surgery

Surgery should be considered only if medical treatment fails or if there is a nasal obstruction that cannot be corrected with medications. The type of surgery is chosen to best suit the patient and the disease. Surgery can be performed under the upper lip, behind the eyebrow, next to the nose or scalp, or inside the nose itself.

Functional endoscopic sinus surgery (FESS) is recommended for certain types of sinus disease. With the endoscope, the surgeon can look directly into the nose, while at the same time, removing diseased tissue and polyps and clearing the narrow channels between the sinuses. The decision whether to use local or general anesthesia will be made between you and your doctor, depending on your individual circumstances.

Before surgery, be sure that you have realistic expectations for the results, recovery, and postoperative care. Good results require not only good surgical techniques, but a cooperative effort between the patient and physician throughout the healing process. It is equally important for patients to follow pre- and postoperative instructions.

Preventing Sinusitis

As always, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. To avoid developing sinusitis during a cold or allergy attack, keep your sinuses clear by:

Allergy testing, followed by appropriate allergy treatments, may increase your tolerance of allergy-causing substances. If you believe you may have sinusitis, see our tips for sinusitis sufferers.

When to See a Doctor

Because the symptoms of sinusitis sometimes mimic those of colds and allergies, you may not realize you need to see a doctor. If you suspect you have sinusitis, review these signs and symptoms. If you suffer from three or more, you should see your doctor.

SIGN/
SYMPTOM
SINUSITIS
ALLERGY
COLD
Facial Pressure/
Pain
Yes
Sometimes
Sometimes
Duration of Illness
Over 10-14 days
Varies
Under 10 days
Nasal Discharge
Thick, yellow-green
Clear, thin, watery
Thick, whitish or thin
Fever
Sometimes
No
Sometimes
Headache
Sometimes
Sometimes
Sometimes
Pain in Upper Teeth
Sometimes
No
No
Bad Breath
Sometimes
No
No
Coughing
Sometimes
Sometimes
Yes
Nasal Congestion
Yes
Sometimes
Yes
Sneezing
No
Sometimes
Yes

A Word about Children

Your child's sinuses are not fully developed until age 20. However, children can still suffer from sinus infection. Although small, the maxillary (behind the cheek) and ethmoid (between the eyes) sinuses are present at birth. Sinusitis is difficult to diagnose in children because respiratory infections are more frequent, and symptoms can be subtle. Unlike a cold or allergy, bacterial sinusitis requires a physician's diagnosis and treatment with an antibiotic to prevent future complications.

The following symptoms may indicate a sinus infection in your child:

If despite appropriate medical therapy these symptoms persist, care should be taken to seek an underlying cause. The role of allergy and frequent upper respiratory infections should be considered.

The American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery is the world's largest specialty association for facial plastic surgery. It represents more than 2,700 facial plastic and reconstructive surgeons throughout the world. The AAFPRS is a National Medical Specialty Society of the American Medical Association (AMA), and holds an official seat in both the AMA House of Delegates and the American College of Surgeons board of governors. AAFPRS members are board certified surgeons whose focus is surgery of the face, head, and neck. AAFPRS members subscribe to a code of ethics.

Specialization in medicine has been one of the major enhancements in patient care over the last generation. AAFPRS members not only have a precise focus in patient care but they also have had more comprehensive training in facial surgery than any other medical specialty.

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