When to See a Doctor for a Sinus Infection

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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Sinus infections, also called sinusitis, are very common. You have four pairs of sinuses which produce mucus. Three pairs are behind, above and between your eyes. You have a fourth pair of sinuses along the sides of your nose. These sinuses are hollow, but if they become blocked and the mucus can’t drain, they fill with fluid, causing sinusitis. A gentle finger tap to the face near an infected sinus is often extremely painful.

The most common symptom of a sinus infection is a sinus headache: pressure and pain behind your cheekbones or around your eyes. Other symptoms include yellow- or green-colored nasal discharge, a foul taste in your mouth, and fever. Sinusitis can be acute (lasting less than a month), subacute (lasting up to three months), or chronic (lasting longer than three months). You can also have recurrent sinus infections, which occur several times a year.

Common Causes of Sinus Infection

Sinus infections are caused by either viruses or bacteria, but they can be caused by fungi as well. Although sinusitis is a very common condition, some people are at higher risk of developing the infection. They include people who:

Sinus Infection Treatment at Home

It isn’t possible for you to tell at home if sinusitis is caused by a bacteria, virus or fungus, but there are some steps you can take to help relieve sinus infections symptoms. They include:

  • Moisturizing the room air with a humidifier or vaporizer

  • Increasing your fluid intake to ensure you are well hydrated

  • Using saline sprays or nasal irrigations

  • Using nasal spray decongestants for 2 or 3 days at the most

  • Applying warm compresses to your face to help relieve pain and pressure

  • Sleeping with your head elevated. If sleeping on a pile of pillows isn’t comfortable, place blocks under the two legs at the head of your bed to elevate it.

  • Taking over-the-counter pain relievers, such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen

When to See a Doctor for a Sinus Infection

Acute sinusitis often goes away on its own; however, there are times when you should see your doctor for sinus infection treatment if self-care doesn’t work. You should see a doctor if you still have sinusitis symptoms after a week or if they return more than a few times within a year. You should also see a doctor as soon as possible if the infection worsens. Signs of a worsening sinus infection include:

  • Fever

  • Increase in pain or the pain spreads

  • Over-the-counter pain medications do not relieve the pain

  • Increase in nasal discharge

Who to See for a Sinus Infection

Most often, you would see your primary care physician or family doctor to be assessed for sinus infections. If you have a bacterial infection, you may be prescribed antibiotics, and a fungal infection would be treated with an antifungal medication. Viral infections do not respond to antibiotics, but your doctor may recommend prescription-strength decongestants to help relieve symptoms until the virus goes away.

If you have chronic or recurrent sinus infections, your primary doctor may refer you to see a specialist, an otolaryngologist, often called an ear, nose and throat (ENT) doctor. An otolaryngologist can determine why you have an infection and recommend treatment. Check with your insurance to see if you need a referral from your doctor before seeing a specialist.

Sinus infections can be quite painful, but they generally go away on their own or with treatment. If you get frequent sinus infections or you have one that is not responding to your home treatments, see your doctor for an evaluation.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Aug 12
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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