What are sinuses?

Sinuses are hollow air cavities in the skull. There are eight such empty spaces in the human skull. The cavities that become inflamed during attacks of sinusitis are known as the paranasal sinuses. Two of these are located in the forehead and are known as the frontal sinuses. Another two are inside the cheekbones and are called the maxillary sinuses.

The paranasal sinuses are continuous with the nostrils and share a common lining of mucus membrane

The remaining pairs of sinuses are known as the ethmoid sinuses, which are located behind the bridge of the nose and the sphenoid sinuses, which are in the upper region of the nose close to the eyes.

Each sinus opens into the nose in order to exchange air and mucus. A moist mucus secreting membrane known as mucus membrane lines the sinuses and nostrils.

What are the symptoms of sinusitis?

Sinus pain is usually due to pressure being applied to a sinus wall. This can occur for a variety of reasons. Nasal swelling, due to an infection or an allergic reaction may place pressure on the adjoining sinuses. Equally a build up of pus or mucus within a sinus may be to blame. Occasionally a vacuum can develop in a sinus because of a swollen mucus membrane. This can cause a particularly intense pain.

Depending on which sinuses are affected and why, a sufferer will experience different symptoms of sinusitis. Early morning headache after waking is often a sign of sinus trouble. Inflammation of the frontal sinuses causes pain when the forehead is touched at the brow. The cheeks become equally sore to touch if the maxillary sinuses are inflamed. These sinuses can also cause the teeth and jawbone to ache.

Ethmoid infection is often associated with a loss of the sense of smell, swelling of the eyelids and a tenderness of the nose. Sphenoid inflammation is less common, but can cause severe earache and pain that runs from the neck to the top of the head. However, since most people who experience sinusitis have more than one infected sinus at any given time, symptoms do not always indicate exactly which locations are inflamed.

More generally, sinusitis can cause a range of symptoms including the following:

  • fever
  • fatigue
  • night cough
  • runny nose
  • nasal congestion
  • post-nasal drip

As most cases of sinusitis are indirectly caused by viral infections such as the common cold, the inflammation of the sinuses tends to clear up within about the same period it takes to get over a cold, i.e. about two weeks. However some cases of sinusitis are known as chronic, because they continue for at least three weeks, and in many cases for months or more.

How is chronic sinusitis treated?

When sinusitis has been caused by a bacterial infection it can be successfully treated with antibiotics. Steroid nasal sprays may also be prescribed to help reduce congestion. Many cases of chronic sinusitis will not clear up even after a prolonged treatment with antibiotics and in such cases; oral steroids or even surgery may be the only way to resolve the problem for good.

Symptom relief is often the main concern for people with chronic sinusitis. While no remedies will resolve the underlying problem, inhaling a vaporiser or using a saline nasal spray may temporarily reduce inflammation and ease the pain.

What can be done to prevent episodes of sinusitis?

Airborne pollutants including cigarette smoke increase inflammation of the sinuses and should be avoided. Alcohol also causes sinuses to swell. Chlorine added to swimming pools can also greatly irritate the nasal passage and sinuses.

People with chronic sinusitis may experience particular discomfort during air travel, as air trapped in sinuses may expand as air pressure reduces with altitude. Decongestant drops or inhalers may be used to ease this pain somewhat.

Since many cases of sinusitis are related to allergic reactions, it may be useful to consult your GP to ascertain what you may be allergic to. Dust, moulds, pollens and certain foods can all cause an allergic reaction that brings on sinusitis, and your family doctor may be able to help you reduce or limit your allergic reactions.

Back to top.