5 Best Ways to Treat a Sinus Infection

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Sinus infections bring facial pain, pressure and overall discomfort, which can leave you with your head under a pillow for days. Whether you’re suffering through your first sinus infection, or you get them year after year, Katherine Alatorre, DO, UnityPoint Health, covers how to get rid of a sinus infection, including sinus rinses and other remedies, to help you get relief fast.

Sinus Infection Symptoms

Dr. Alatorre sees more sinus symptoms and complaints in the fall and spring, usually coinciding with increased viral illnesses. But these symptoms, including the color of your nasal drainage, don’t necessarily mean you’re going to end up with an infection.

“Most feel if they have sinus drainage that isn’t clear, it’s a sinus infection – but that’s not the case,” Dr. Alatorre says. “Most common cold viruses can also cause yellow or green coloring to the drainage as well.”

She lists the following as sinus infection symptoms:

  • Sinus pressure
  • Nasal drainage 
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Headache
  • Fever
  • Bad breath
  • Tooth pain
  • Ear pressure

“Bacterial sinus infections can last for 10 days or more, don’t improve with time and can cause fevers of 102 degrees or higher. Viral infections see improvement by day six or so, with a fever only in the first one to three days,” Dr. Alatorre says.

Sinus Infection vs. COVID-19

It can be hard to tell the difference between COVID-19 and a sinus infection, especially if you've been vaccinated or have mild symptoms. If you experience a fever greater than 100.4, notice any changes in taste or smell, recently travel or know of an exposure, it's best to get a COVID-19 test.

Are Sinus Infections Contagious?

The sinus infection, itself, isn't contagious but what causes it may be. 

“The majority of sinus infections are caused by viruses. Some people who get a common cold virus will notice swelling, inflammation and mucus buildup in the sinuses, which is a sinus infection. The virus that leads to your sinus infection is contagious to others. Typically, you’re contagious a few days before symptoms begin until symptoms go away, which can be about two weeks," Dr. Alatorre says.

Bacteria or allergies can also cause sinus infections. Those, however, aren’t contagious to others.

How to Treat a Sinus Infection

Think you have a sinus infection? Here are the best treatment options according to Dr. Alatorre:

1. Over-the-Counter (OTC) Remedies

Any OTC remedies typically used for colds can also help treat sinus infections, as greater than 80 percent of symptoms are caused by viruses. Tylenol or ibuprofen work well for fever, muscle aches, headache and sore throat symptoms. Throat sprays or cough drops can help with post-nasal drip symptoms. If you’re having trouble sleeping, try a combination cold and sinus sleep medication, like Nyquil.

2. Decongestant & Antihistamine Medications

Along the same lines as OTC options, antihistamine medications, such as Claritin, Zyrtec or Benadryl, can also offer sinus infection symptom relief. While these medications specifically target allergy symptoms, sinus infection symptoms can be similar, making antihistamines worth a try. 

3. Neti Pots & Sinus Rinses

Neti Pots and sinus rinses can be used for any nasal congestion, including from allergies, colds or sinus infections. They help with nasal irrigation and clear sinus drainage from the nose to make it easier to breathe, so you feel less stuffy. They also thin the mucus and allow the natural defenses in your nose to clear the nasal discharge, washing away possible allergens or other irritants.

“If you use a Neti Pot, once daily is usually enough, but it can be used three to four times for more severe symptoms, as long as you’re not experiencing any discomfort with use. If you have allergies or chronic issues, you can use it three times per week to help prevent symptoms,” Dr. Alatorre says.

Neti Pots and saline rinses require sterile water, which can be boiled or purchased (container will say distilled or sterile). Keep the Neti Pot clean between uses to avoid introducing bacteria to the nasal passages. Side effects from the Neti Pot include nasal dryness and, at times, bloody noses, which can be relieved by using it less often or making sure you’re using a saline solution.

4. Aromatherapy

Aromatherapy is a great home remedy and natural treatment for sinus infections. Using eucalyptus, peppermint or other scents can possibly help open up the respiratory tract. These essential oils can be put into some home humidifiers, which will diffuse the scent.

5. Antibiotics

Many patients seek medical treatment sooner rather than later because the symptoms of sinus congestion from a cold, virus or bacteria are all equally uncomfortable. But, since most sinus infections are caused by viruses, it’s usually preferred to not prescribe antibiotic options for treatment, unless the person has more concerning symptoms lasting longer than 10 days with a fever greater than 102 degrees.

“Some people do get chronic sinus infections, and there can be rare complications, such as abscesses (collections of pus) in the nasal passages. These are uncommon and are usually more related to the anatomy of the sinus passages than putting off treatment. I would recommend if anyone is concerned about their symptoms to go in and be evaluated. Your doctor will prescribe further treatment, if needed,” Dr. Alatorre says.

With antibiotic resistance rates climbing, it’s important to use antibiotics for sinus infection treatment only when necessary.