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 Is it a Cold, Allergies or Sinusitis? Fact Sheet

What is Sinusitis: 

Frequently patients ask “What is sinusitis, and how does one know if certain symptoms are caused by sinus problems?” This can be confusing because symptoms caused by allergies, viral colds, bacterial infections and nasal obstruction can overlap. The diagnosis is further complicated by the fact that colds and allergies can cause swelling that obstructs sinus openings and leads to sinus infection. The term sinusitis means inflammation of the sinuses; it includes all sorts of inflammation whether viral, bacterial, fungal, or obstructive.

Symptoms and Types: 

Symptoms that suggest sinusitis include discolored yellow or green nasal drainage, persistent drainage, facial pressure or upper tooth pain, fever, congestion, fatigue and malaise, and frontal headaches.
The sinuses are air filled chambers within the facial bones. They are lined with thin skin, called mucosa that normally produces mucus. Mucus is a clear watery liquid that is swept along by microscopic cilia that beat in waves like an undulating shag carpet to carry the mucus to the sinus opening and then into the nasal passage. The mucus passes to the back of the throat and is swallowed. The sinuses also produce a gas called nitric oxide that has antiviral and antibacterial properties and may open the bronchi within the lungs.
When the sinuses are not draining and ventilating normally, mucus accumulates, the oxygen content of the sinus drops, the mucosa swells and cilia stop beating. Bacteria reproduce in the trapped mucus, and white blood cells arrive to fight the bacteria converting the mucus into pus. This infection causes the bones of the face to ache and triggers headaches. The pus overflows from the sinuses and drains either out the front of the nose or down the back of the throat causing a cough. The chemicals released by the bacteria and white blood cells circulate in the blood stream causing fever and malaise, which is a sensation of discomfort or uneasiness.
Swelling from allergies, colds or inhaled irritants like smoke can interrupt sinus drainage. Mechanical obstruction from polyps, abnormal turbinates (shelves of thin bone on the side wall of the nose) or a deviated septum can also compromise sinus drainage.
Acute sinusitis is an infection resolving in less than four weeks.  Chronic sinusitis means infections that recur or last longer than 12 weeks. Possible complications of sinusitis include chronic recurrent infections, spread to the orbit (eye socket) with risk of visual loss or blindness, spread to the bones of the face (osteomyelitis), or spread to the brain resulting in meningitis or brain abscess.
If you suspect that you have chronic sinusitis, you should see an ear, nose and throat specialist.