Spot the Signs of a Sinus Infection

The start of cold and flu season could make certain people more prone to sinus infections. They occur when there is a build-up of fluid in the nasal passages. Over time, that fluid can stagnate and bacteria can grow.

Northeast Medical Group Internal Medicine physician Sabina Rebis, MD, said allergies or the presence of viruses in the fall and winter can make the immune system work harder, stimulating the production of that fluid.

However, not all sinus infections are bacterial. If a patient experiences symptoms for seven days or less, the sinus infection is likely viral.

“The difference between a viral infection and bacterial infection is the amount of time that symptoms are present for,” Dr. Rebis said. “If you’re developing a fever five days after you developed symptoms, that’s more concerning than having a fever in the first day.”

Sinus infection symptoms

Common viral infection symptoms include:

  • Runny nose
  • Congestion
  • Discomfort in the sinuses
  • Low-grade fever

Common bacterial infection symptoms are similar, but likely more severe. They can also include:

  • Pain in the sinuses
  • Jaw pain 
  • Tooth pain
  • Blood in the mucus
  • Fever over 100.4 degrees

Is your mucus green or yellow? That does not mean you have a bacterial infection. In fact, Dr. Rebis said that is simply an old wives’ tale.

“A lot of patients come to us and they want antibiotics with two days of symptoms and green mucus. That tells us nothing,” she said.

Treating sinus infections

If you experience symptoms for seven days or longer, it is time to call your doctor or visit a walk-in or urgent care clinic. A clinician can treat a bacterial sinus infection with antibiotics.

While antibiotics are not available for viral infections, a few things can help ease symptoms. Rest and drink plenty of fluids. A nasal spray or saline rinse help clear the nasal passages. People with allergies can take an antihistamine to dry out the sinuses.

Can you prevent sinus infections?

Dr. Rebis recommends the infection prevention measures you may have heard once or twice before. Wash your hands, stay away from others who are sick, and get your flu and COVID-19 vaccinations. Vaccination will not prevent a sinus infection but it will help protect you against two of the most dominant viruses circulating in our community right now.