Sinus Infections: Nothing to Sneeze At!

If you’ve ever had sinusitis, you know about the intense pressure in your eyes, nose and cheeks that can accompany a sinus infection. You may have also experienced coughing, a fever and thick mucus. It’s all very unpleasant and can be quite painful. For sufferers, the condition may be a once-in-a while occurrence, or may become an ongoing infection that just won’t go away.

Our skulls have four pairs of hollow, air-filled sacks. These sacks are the sinus cavities, or sinuses. The sacks connect the space between our nasal passages and our nostrils and help to insulate our skulls. The four sacks are called frontal, maxillary, ethmoid and sphenoid and are found in our foreheads, behind our cheekbones, between our eyes and behind our eyes.

You might be surprised to know that our nasal passages and our sinus cavities are covered with mucus and little hairs called cilia that ‘sweep’ bacteria out of the nose and sinus cavities. But our nasal passages also contain bacteria. Under normal conditions, the bacteria do not go any further than our nasal passages. But sometimes the bacteria enter the sinus cavity and stick to the lining cells and, before you know it, you have a sinus infection that can last up to 8 weeks. If the condition becomes chronic, episodes of infection can last much longer.

Sometimes, you will have a sinus infection that follows an upper respiratory tract virus. Viruses can damage the lining of the sinuses, causing inflammation. That’s where the thick mucus comes from. It’s your sinus cavity trying to protect itself and clean out the infection.

Allergies can also cause infected sinuses, and the symptoms are similar to a viral infection with coughing, sneezing and thick mucus production.

Bacteria such as Streptococcus can cause acute sinusitis and Staphylococcus can be one cause of chronic sinusitis. Fungi are also on the rise as a cause of chronic sinusitis, especially for those with weakened immune systems.

The best way to treat a sinus infection is to see your doctor. Although there are many over-the-counter remedies, sinus infections can turn from acute to chronic and cause complications that can make your symptoms far more difficult to treat and lead to some serious medical problems, even death.

If you experience these symptoms, please seek immediate medical treatment:

You may have an infection of the frontal sinus bone if you have a headache, a fever, and any soft tissue swelling in the area of your forehead. This is called Pott puffy tumor or osteomyelitis and is commonly seen in children.

If you notice eyelid swelling or your eye looks droopy, you may have an infection of your eye socket. Fever accompanies this condition, called ethmoid sinusitis, and you will likely be very ill.

If left untreated, you may lose your ability to move you eye or could become permanently blind.This condition may also form blood clots in the area of the sinus around the front of your face and across your forehead with symptoms affecting your face on both sides.

The most serious complication is that of an infection which has spread to the brain. Left untreated, a brain infection can lead to coma and even death. Symptoms may include changes in personality, severe headache, difficulty seeing or focusing and seizures. Any individual showing these signs must receive immediate emergency medical attention.

If you suspect you may be developing a sinus infection, don’t delay in making an appointment with your doctor. It’s the safest, most effective way to treat this condition and make sure complications do not occur.

Dr. Douglis is a Board Certified specialist in Otolaryngology Head and Neck Surgery (Ear, Nose, and Throat). He attended the University Of Maryland School Of Medicine and completed his specialty training at the University of Maryland Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland. He has practiced medicine in Montgomery County Texas and the Houston area since 1982.

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