Dr. Menachof, MD, has specialized in conditions around the head, throat, ear, nose, neck and face for over 20 years, and was the first to bring sublingual allergy drops to Colorado in 2005. He has been recognized as a Fellow by multiple academies, named one of America’s Top Facial Plastic Surgeons continually since 2003 and is featured in multiple national publications.
While sinus infections themselves are not contagious, the underlying cause of the infection can be contagious.
Viruses such as the common cold are the most frequent cause of sinusitis, and these viral infections can be easily spread from one person to another. If you have a sinus infection caused by a virus, it is possible to pass your cold to another person which increases the likelihood (though doesn’t guarantee) that they will develop a sinus infection.
Viral infections create the perfect environment for sinusitis to thrive. Fluid and mucus are unable to drain properly and begin to grow germs, which often leads to a sinus infection. Other causes of sinus infections are not contagious, such as bacterial infections, allergies, nasal polyps and deviated septum.
How to Avoid Spreading Sinus Infections
Sinusitis can easily develop as a result of a cold or virus, so spreading these illnesses puts other people at risk of developing a sinus infection. Viruses are spread by breathing in small droplets of water in the air, and also by touching surfaces where these bacteria are lingering. A sinus infection caused by a viral infection lasts about seven to 10 days, meaning you can be contagious with the virus for up to two weeks.
You can avoid spreading a cold by wearing a mask while you are sick, covering your mouth when you cough or sneeze, and washing your hands frequently with soap and hot water.
Common Causes of Sinus Infections
Viruses are the most common cause of sinus infection. Viral infections are also the most contagious cause of sinusitis, but spreading a virus doesn’t necessarily mean you are spreading a sinus infection. Many people who get a cold or virus will only have normal symptoms that resolve within several weeks. However, viral infections create the perfect environment for a sinus infection to breed, so the likelihood of developing sinusitis is much higher when you have a virus.
Bacteria or fungi can also cause sinus infections when they are trapped in the nasal and sinus passages. However, these infections are not contagious and can’t be spread to others. Bacterial sinusitis is also far less common, with only about 2 percent of sinus infections being caused by bacteria. Bacterial infections are the only kind of sinus infection that can be treated with antibiotics.
Nasal polyps are small, non-cancerous tissue growths that can obstruct airflow in the nasal passages and lead to congestion and other breathing issues. When nasal polyps cause swelling and block airflow for an extended time they can cause sinus infections.
Cancerous nasal tumors or growths can cause sinusitis in the same way as nasal polyps, by obstructing the airways and causing inflammation and the buildup of bacteria-filled mucus.
Allergies are frequently the underlying cause of recurring or ongoing sinus infections. When allergy triggers cause the body to release histamines, these histamines cause swelling, congestion, sneezing, and other issues that lead to improper airflow and blocked nasal drainage.
A deviated septum is a common condition where the wall that separates your nostrils is crooked or off-center, causing one nasal air passage to be smaller than the other. A severely deviated septum can affect your ability to breathe well and drain or dry out bacteria properly, which can lead to frequent sinus infections until the underlying septum issue is addressed.
Common Symptoms of Sinus Infections
Sinusitis can cause uncomfortable symptoms no matter the reason for the infection. Sinus infections can impact everything from your breathing, to your sleep, to your ability to focus.
It is common sinusitis to cause symptoms such as:
- sinus pain & pressure
- runny or stuffy nose
- loss of smell
- postnasal drip
- sore throat
- bad breath
Acute Sinusitis vs. Chronic Sinusitis
Not all sinus infections progress the same way. The length and severity of your symptoms can vary. When symptoms develop and resolve quickly, within 7 – 10 days, this is called acute sinusitis. If symptoms last for several weeks or continue to return frequently, this is called chronic sinusitis. Acute sinusitis commonly develops from a cold, while chronic sinusitis typically stems from an underlying cause such as bacterial infection, allergies, or nasal polyps.
How to Treat a Sinus Infection
There are many different ways to relieve symptoms of sinus infections, from over the counter medicines to home remedies to prescription care. An expert ENT doctor can help you determine the root cause of your sinus infection so you can choose the most effective treatment.
Breathing steam helps hydrate your sinus passages and breaks up mucus so your sinuses can drain more easily. Inhaling steam from hot water in a bowl or taking a hot shower can reduce your sinus infection symptoms like pressure and pain. Doing this regularly can help you avoid congestion and sinus infections in the future.
Certain nasal sprays can help keep your nasal passages moist and reduce swelling or congestion. Sprays like fluticasone are more effective the longer you use them, but be careful because other decongestant sprays like Afrin can only be used for shorter periods of time or else they do more harm than good.
Saline Nasal Flush
Using a saline solution of distilled water and salt to flush out the nasal airways helps add moisture to the sinuses and breaks up any thick mucus. Nasal irrigation can be done in several different ways, including the Neti pot which has been used for saline flush therapy for centuries. A frequent saline flush helps to keep your sinuses properly drained, which decreases your risk of developing a sinus infection.
Over the counter medications like pain relievers, decongestants and antihistamines can help reduce the swelling, pain, and nasal obstruction caused by a sinus infection. These medicines can also reduce other symptoms like coughing and post-nasal drip related to sinusitis. Be sure to confirm that any OTC medicines you choose won’t react with any prescription medicines or natural remedies you may be taking already.
Antibiotics can occasionally be prescribed by a doctor to help clear up a sinus infection, but only if the infection is caused by a bacteria (which is rare) instead of a virus. Most sinus infections are viral, meaning that antibiotics are not an effective treatment in many cases.
If allergies are at the root of your sinus infections, treating your allergies with easy immunotherapy allergy drops can be a long-term solution to sinus issues. These drops are taken daily under the tongue and slowly increase the body’s tolerance for allergens, so you no longer experience the congestion and frequent sinus infections that can stem from allergy symptoms.
The most effective long-term treatment to treat recurring or chronic sinusitis is a procedure called FESS or balloon sinuplasty. During this procedure the surgeon opens and enlarges the sinus cavities, allowing for better airflow and drainage. The larger sinus openings help the infection drain and then provide proper drainage for many years, meaning fewer sinus issues and infections.
Know When to See a Doctor
While most sinus infections will resolve themselves within a couple weeks without medical intervention, it is important to know when your sinus issues have escalated to the point that you should see a doctor.
You should call or see a doctor immediately if you experience:
- A fever over 102°F (38.8°C)
- Double vision or difficulty seeing
- Swelling around the eyes
- A swollen forehead
- A sudden stiff neck
- Intense, consistent pain and headache
- Sinus symptoms lasting more than 6 weeks
- Multiple sinus infections within 12 months
- OTC Medications do not improve your systems
When in doubt, you can always consult with an experienced Ear, Nose and Throat (ENT) specialist to determine if a doctor’s visit or other medical intervention is needed.
Find Out What’s Causing Your Sinus Infection To Avoid Spreading It
Sinus infections can only be considered “contagious” if they stem from a viral infection, not when they are caused by bacteria, allergies, or nasal disruptions. Knowing the root cause of your sinusitis is the key to getting the right treatment and preventing the spread of this condition. Duration and symptoms can be clues to help you determine the source of your sinus infection, but when in doubt you can always connect with an ENT expert to discuss which treatment is best for you. Book a consultation to find lasting relief from sinus infection symptoms.