Sinusitis is a common condition that occurs when the lining of the sinuses becomes inflamed.
This inflammation leads to a build-up of pressure, most commonly around the cheeks and eyes, which can cause headaches and a ‘stuffy’ nose, as well as less common symptoms such as toothache, earache, and fatigue.
This inflammation can have a wide range of causes, and we’ll look at a few of the most common causes later on in this article.
Are you sure it’s sinusitis?
Sinusitis affects about 90% of the adult population worldwide, so if you suspect you’ve got it, you probably have! It’s worth knowing, however, that the symptoms of sinusitis are quite similar to those of the common cold and hay fever.
The main way to tell the difference between these three conditions is by the length of time they hang around: sinusitis will usually display symptoms for at least a week, hay fever depends on the presence of allergens, and a cold typically peaks after a couple of days and disappears within the week.
There are two types of sinusitis: acute and chronic. Acute sinusitis usually lasts between seven and ten days and is most commonly caused by a lingering infection from a cold. Chronic sinusitis lasts for much longer (and/or reoccurs very frequently) and has a wider range of causes.
Why do we get sinusitis?
To understand the causes and the symptoms of sinusitis, you need to know what’s going on ‘behind the scenes’. Every human has four sets of sinuses in their heads. Amazingly, no one is completely sure why they’re there, although there are lots of different theories.
Each sinus contains a pocket of air and sits behind a different facial bone. The maxillary sinus sits behind the cheekbones, the sphenoid and ethmoid sinuses behind the eyebrows and temples and the frontal sinus right behind the forehead.
We experience the symptoms of sinusitis when something goes wrong with these air pockets and the nasal passages connected to them. Because it is unknown exactly why we have sinuses, it’s hard to describe when they’re working effectively, but it’s very easy to describe what happens when they stop working.
If the nasal passages or openings become blocked or if the tiny hairs (cilia) responsible for keeping those areas sterile stop working, the sinus lining doesn’t drain its mucus, and the trapped bacteria can cause uncomfortable inflammation.
Common causes of sinusitis
With acute sinusitis, the most likely culprit of inflammation is a blocked nose from a viral infection, which then causes bacteria to become trapped and start to breed. In other words, if you get a bad head cold, you have a reasonably high chance of experiencing sinusitis either while you have a cold or immediately after it’s gone.
Acute sinusitis can also be caused by a bacterial or fungal infection. Whatever the original cause of the blockage, the end result is the same: bacteria get stuck in the sinus membrane, breed and then cause an uncomfortable inflammation that won’t go away until the infected mucus is expelled from the area.
With chronic sinusitis, the causes can include anything from allergies and asthma to a weak immune system and polyps. The root reason for discomfort is still the same – a blockage that leads to a build-up of bacteria and fluid.
Treatment options for sinusitis
There are many different treatment options available. If you’re experiencing a lot of pain or have been suffering from symptoms for more than ten days, it would be wise to consult your GP.
In most cases of acute sinusitis, the solution is to treat the symptoms of the condition until the bacteria is cleaned out of the system and the problem goes away by itself. Palliative treatments can include steam inhalations (preferably prepared with some kind of mentholated substance), nasal sprays and washes, drinking lots of fluids and taking painkillers or decongestants.
Chronic sinusitis can be treated palliatively in the same way, though because chronic sinusitis won’t ‘go away by itself’, other treatments are often used.
Sinusitis surgery is usually the last resort and is only recommended if other treatments have failed. The aim of surgery is to help the sinus lining drain better and become less easily blocked, which is why surgery can be a very effective cure for long-term sufferers of sinusitis.