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Acute Sinusitis

What is Acute Sinusitis?

A stuffed up nose and pressure on our cheekbones can often mean you have acute sinusitis. Acute sinusitis, also called acute rhinosinusitis, is a short-term infection or inflammation of the membranes that line your sinuses. It prevents mucus from draining from your nose. According to the American Academy of Otarlaryngology (AAO), acute sinusitis is common, affecting more than 37 million Americans a year. (AAO)

What Causes Acute Sinusitis?

Illnesses and conditions that can cause acute sinusitis include:

  • colds
  • bacterial upper respiratory tract infections
  • fungal sinus infections
  • allergies that cause mucus production in the sinuses
  • lack of cilia motility, caused by disease (cilia are the small hairs located in your sinuses that move to push mucus out of your sinuses)
  • nasal polyps or tumors
  • deviated nasal septum
  • enlarged or infected adenoids
  • infected tooth (in rare cases bacteria can spread from the infected tooth to the sinuses)
  • cystic fibrosis (a disease that causes thick, sticky mucus to build up in the body)

Who Is at Risk for Acute Sinusitis?

The following factors can increase your risk of developing acute sinusitis:

  • allergies or hay fever
  • nasal passage abnormalities, such as a deviated septum or nasal polyp
  • smoking or frequent breathing in of pollutants
  • diseases that affect the function of cilia, such as Kartagener syndrome (a lung disease that affects cilia motility)
  • large adenoids
  • spending a lot of time in a daycare, preschool, or other areas where contagious viruses are frequently present
  • activities that result in pressure changes, such as flying and scuba diving
  • a weakened immune system
  • cystic fibrosis

What are the Symptoms of Acute Sinusitis?

Symptoms of acute sinusitis include:

  • nasal congestion
  • thick, yellow, or green mucus discharge from the nose
  • sore throat
  • a cough (usually worse at night)
  • drainage of mucus in the back of your throat
  • headache
  • pain, pressure, or tenderness behind your eyes, nose, cheeks, or forehead
  • earache
  • toothache
  • bad breath
  • reduced sense of smell
  • reduced sense of taste
  • fever
  • fatigue

How Is Acute Sinusitis Diagnosed?

Diagnosing acute sinusitis usually involves a physical exam. Your doctor will gently tap your sinuses with his fingers to identify an infection. The exam may involve looking into your nose with a light to identify inflammation, polyps, tumors, or other abnormalities.

Your doctor may also perform the following tests to confirm diagnosis:

Nasal Endoscopy

Your doctor may look into your nose using a nasal endoscope, a thin, flexible fiberoptic scope. The scope helps your doctor identify inflammation or other abnormalities in your sinuses.

Imaging Tests

Your doctor may order a CT scan or MRI to look for inflammation or sinus abnormalities.

How Is Acute Sinusitis Treated?

Most cases of acute sinusitis can be treated with home treatments, which include:

  • a moist, warm washcloth held over your sinuses to loosen congestion
  • a humidifier to loosen congestion
  • saline nasal sprays, used several times a day to clear your nasal passages
  • drinking plenty of fluids in order to thin mucus
  • over-the-counter nasal corticosteroid sprays, such as Flonase or Nasonex, to reduce sinus inflammation
  • over-the-counter decongestants, such as Sudafed or Actifed, to dry up mucus
  • over-the-counter pain relievers, such as Advil, Tylenol, or Motrin, to relieve sinus pain
  • sleeping with your head elevated to encourage your sinuses to drain

Prescription Medications

Your doctor may prescribe prescription antibiotics, anti-fungal medications, or allergy shots for severe acute sinusitis infections.


In some cases, surgery may be necessary to treat the underlying cause of acute sinusitis. Your doctor may perform surgery to remove nasal polyps or tumors, correct a deviated nasal septum, or clean and drain your sinuses.

Alternative Treatment

The following alternative treatments may help relieve your acute sinusitis symptoms:


Nasturtium herb and horseradish are beneficial for relieving sinusitis symptoms, and produce minimal side effects. (Goos, et al., 2006) Ask your doctor about safety and dosages.

Acupuncture and Acupressure

While no hard scientific evidence exists to confirm their effectiveness in treating this condition, some people report that acupuncture and acupressure provide some relief for acute sinusitis caused by allergies.

What Happens in the Long Term?

Most cases of acute sinusitis clear up with home treatment. Sometimes acute sinusitis does not clear up and leads to sub-acute sinusitis (lasting four to 12 weeks), or chronic sinusitis (lasting three months or longer). In very rare cases, sinusitis can lead to an infection that spreads to your eyes, ears, or bones, or causes meningitis. Call your healthcare provider if you experience a severe headache that does not respond to medication, a fever, or vision changes that occur during your acute sinusitis infection; these may be signs the infection has spread outside your sinuses.

Can Acute Sinusitis Be Prevented?

You may be able to prevent getting acute sinusitis. Here’s how:

  • Eat a healthy diet to keep your immune system strong.
  • Avoid cigarette smoke and other air pollutants.
  • Minimize your contact with people who have colds.
  • Wash your hands often and before meals.
  • Use a humidifier in dry weather to keep your sinuses moist and healthy.
  • Get a flu vaccine yearly.
  • Treat allergies promptly.
  • Take decongestants when you have nasal congestion.

Content licensed from:

Written by: Rose Kivi
Medically reviewed on: Sep 28, 2012: George Krucik, MD

This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to replace the care and information received from your health care provider. Please consult a health care professional with any health concerns you may have.
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