Sinus Science

Over-the-counter products can help sinus-related symptoms, but a sinus infection often requires prescription medication.

Congestion on the road slows down your truck, but congestion in your head can slow you down. Along with coughing, sneezing and pressure in your head come aches and fatigue. If you smoke
or share a cab with a smoker, those symptoms can be even worse.

Taking cold medications is a logical first step. But if that doesn’t help after a week or more and you finally make it to the doctor, don’t be surprised to find out you have sinusitis. This means an infection of the sinuses, which are hollow air spaces around the nose, eyes and cheeks.

Acute sinusitis usually lasts for less than three weeks. The chronic form can last up to eight weeks but can continue to trouble you for years. Recurrent sinusitis involves several acute attacks within a year.

More than 37 million Americans suffer at least one episode of acute sinusitis each year, according to the American Academy of Otolaryngology (which means ear, nose and throat medicine). Most acute cases start with a common cold, which inflames the sinuses. The cold and the inflammation usually go away without treatment in two weeks. But your nose may produce mucus and send white blood cells to the lining of the nose, causing the nasal passages to congest and swell. Sometimes this traps air and mucus, creating prime conditions for bacteria to multiply and leading to sinus infection. Sinusitis can also be caused by fungal infections and chronic inflammation of the nasal passages.

Doctors usually prescribe pain relievers, decongestants to reduce congestion and antibiotics to control any bacterial infection. If you choose over-the-counter or prescription decongestant nose drops or sprays, use them for only a few days. Saline nasal sprays or drops, however, are safe for continuous use. Many cases of acute sinusitis will end without antibiotics. On rare occasions, untreated sinusitis can result in brain infection and other serious complications.

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If you have severe chronic sinusitis, the doctor may prescribe oral steroids, but they can have significant side effects. When treatment fails, surgery may be the only option.

Don’t let things get that far. Try for prevention, or at least timely treatment:

  • If you are prone to sinus disorders, avoid cigarette smoke and other air pollutants.
  • Limit alcohol use, which causes nasal and sinus membranes to swell.
  • Most forms of sinusitis are contagious, so wash your hands regularly and avoid touching your mouth and eyes.
  • Visit a doctor if cold symptoms last more than a week.

Sinus irritation can cause a bloody nose. Here’s how to stop the bleeding:

  1. Sit, leaning forward, so the blood won’t flow down your throat.
  2. Press a tissue or cold compress against the nostrils below the bone.
  3. Pinch nostrils for 15 minutes.
  4. If bleeding persists, replace tissues and continue pinching for five minutes.
  5. Remove tissues slowly.
  6. After bleeding stops, apply a little petroleum jelly inside the nostril to moisturize.
  7. If the nosebleed originates in the back of the nose and does not respond to treatment, seek immediate medical attention. Visit a doctor if you feel weak, look pale or experience an elevated heart rate.
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