If you're constantly plagued with a stuffy nose that just won't quit, you might actually be dealing with a sinus infection.
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This kind of infection occurs when fluid builds up in the (normally) air-filled sinuses and nasal cavities, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. When that happens, germs can grow and flourish.
Because most sinus infections are caused by viruses, according to the CDC, many don't need to be treated with antibiotics (which only help with bacterial infections).
Instead, you may want to talk to your doctor about ways to naturally ease your symptoms. Here are the best home remedies to get rid of a sinus infection.
1. Wait It Out
The tried-and-true method for dealing with most viral infections? Simply give it time.
In fact, most sinus infections caused by a virus will resolve on their own in seven to 10 days, Erica Elsing-Stevens, DO, a family physician with Spectrum Health West Michigan Primary Care, tells LIVESTRONG.com. "Bacterial infection occurs in only 0.5 to 2 percent of the cases," she adds.
So, one strategy you can try is simply waiting out your sinus infection and visiting your doctor if the infection doesn't get better in about a week. The CDC calls this approach "watchful waiting" and recommends it for parents of kids with sinus infections.
"It is very common to clear a sinus infection on your own with symptom management," Dr. Elsing-Stevens notes.
As for symptoms management: Keep reading for the best ways to deal with sinus congestion.
2. Stay Hydrated
"The number one thing you can do is stay hydrated, and this means drink plenty of water," Dr. Elsing-Stevens says.
She recommends taking in water at least every few hours while awake to help flush out the sinuses. Drinking extra water can help thin mucous, according to St. Luke's Health System, which allows it to drain from your sinuses more easily.
A good general rule is to drink half your body weight in ounces each day, but you may want to increase that a bit while you're feeling stuffy.
3. Avoid Triggers
Certain risk factors could make you more susceptible to sinus infections, according to the CDC. These include:
- Being exposed to secondhand smoke
- Seasonal allergies
- Previous infections
To help decrease your risk of developing a sinus infection, or to help manage your symptoms and let your sinus infection clear up, be sure to:
4. Try Nasal Irrigation
You can physically rinse out your sinuses by using a product such as a neti pot. This helps both remove the physical mucus causing discomfort and flushes out the germs hanging out in the sinus cavities. Nasal irrigation sinuses use distilled or sterile water to physically flush out the sinuses.
According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), a neti pot can be a safe and effective way to deal with a sinus infection — but only if you use it correctly and with the right ingredients.
You should follow the directions that came with the neti pot you purchased, because each product may be a bit different. In general, though, the most important rule to remember is to never use tap water with a neti pot.
According to the FDA, you should only use the following kinds of water if you're making a homemade sinus rinse for your neti pot:
- Purchased distilled or sterile water that's labeled as such
- Boiled and cooled water—water should be boiled for 3 to 5 minutes, then cooled. This kind of water can be stored in a clean and closed container for a max of 24 hours.
- Water that has been filtered with a special infectious organism filter.
And finally, be sure to clean the device thoroughly after each use.
Try These Neti Pots
5. Use a Nasal Spray
Nasal sprays can help hydrate dry sinus passages, per the FDA, but they aren't as effective as nasal irrigation devices.
However, they may still help open up the nasal passages and loosen congestion so your sinuses can drain easier, Dr. Elsing-Stevens says.
You can find over-the-counter nasal sprays or purchase a nasal spray mister ($11.95, Amazon.com) that you can fill with your own distilled or sterile water.
6. Reach for Ginger
There's no food that can cure a sinus infection. But eating foods or herbs with antibacterial properties such as garlic, ginger and onions, can be helpful when you're fighting an infection, Dr. Elsing-Stevens says.
Ginger, in particular, may be especially helpful if your sinus infection is the result of allergies. According to an April 2020 study in BMC Complementary Medicine and Therapies, a daily 500-milligram dose of ginger extract was just as effective as taking a 10-milligram pill of loratadine (like Claritin) for symptoms of allergic rhinitis such as runny nose, nasal congestion, itchy eyes and sneezing. And unlike taking the allergy medicine, which can cause drowsiness, the ginger capsules didn't come with any side effects.
If you want to use ginger for congestion, Dr. Elsing-Stevens suggests drinking ginger tea to help with managing your sinus infection. Here's how to make it:
- Add a few pieces of ginger to 1 cup of water.
- Boil well for 10 minutes, then allow to cool.
- Drink up to three times per day.
7. Apply a Warm Compress
If you have sinus tenderness as a result of your sinus infection, using a warm compress placed directly on the sinuses can help, Dr. Elsing-Stevens says.
A warm compress can be as simple as heating a rag or dish towel with warm water and placing it over your sinuses. Alternatively, you can purchase a hot compress product that can be heated.
8. Breathe in Steam
Another way to help soothe the sinuses and loosen up mucous is steam inhalation. Fill a bowl with steaming hot water, cover your head with a towel and lean over the bowl for 10 minutes to allow the steam to go into the sinuses.
Alternatively, running a humidifier or even just taking a hot shower and breathing in the damp air can help, Dr. Elsing-Stevens says. For kids, you could run a hot shower with the bathroom door closed and sit with them in the steamy room. These simple steam therapies are perfectly safe to do several times throughout the day.
9. Vaporize With Vicks
Dr. Elsing-Stevens also recommends trying Vicks VapoRub ($5.49, RiteAid.com) ointment for symptom relief.
Although she explains that Vicks is not a decongestant — so it won't actually get rid of the fluid in your sinuses — it can help make you feel less congested and provide some pain relief.
To use Vicks: Apply a thick layer on your throat and chest up to three times a day.
Do not use Vicks on children younger than 2.
What About Honey?
"Honey has a lot of antioxidants and has antibacterial and antifungal properties," notes Dr. Elsing-Stevens.
And although one older June 2011 study in the Journal of Otolaryngology-Head & Neck Surgery on the topical application of honey for sinus infections was inconclusive (meaning: don't put honey in your sinuses), you can still put the power of honey to good use by adding it to your diet in moderation.
Dr. Elsing-Stevens recommends mixing 1 teaspoon of honey with 1 teaspoon of lemon juice and drinking the mixture up to twice per day.
If you're someone who needs to be especially careful about the amount of sugar in your diet, though (if you have diabetes, for example), then this likely isn't the best remedy for you.
What About Apple Cider Vinegar?
Apple cider vinegar has antioxidant and antibacterial properties, so some people think it's a natural antibiotic for sinus infections and either drink it with water, add it to a vaporizer or try an ACV nasal spray.
But there's no evidence that any of these methods can help clear up sinus congestion, and you should avoid putting apple cider vinegar in your nose, as it may burn.
What About Cayenne Pepper?
If you've ever eaten spicy food, you know that it can sometimes make your nose run. That's likely the reason some people believe eating or even snorting cayenne pepper can help with a sinus infection.
Similarly, others focus on capsaicin, the active ingredient in hot peppers that makes them spicy, believing that a capsaicin nasal spray may clear out congestion.
However, there's no peer-reviewed research to prove that either cayenne or capsaicin are an effective remedy for sinus infections. And while these foods are generally safe, they could have side effects if you take too much. Eating too much cayenne, for example, can irritate your mouth and stomach, and in very large doses it could lead to vomiting or diarrhea.
When to See a Doctor for a Sinus Infection
Although many sinus infections clear up on their own and symptoms can be managed with natural remedies, it's also important to see a doctor if you suspect you have a sinus infection.
You should immediately seek medical attention if:
- You have severe symptoms, including headache or facial pain
- Your symptoms don't improve after 10 days
- Your symptoms worsen over time
- You have a fever that lasts longer than four days
- You have had multiple sinus infections in the past year
- CDC: "Sinus Infection (Sinusitis)"
- FDA: "Is Rinsing Your Sinuses with Neti Pots Safe?"
- Journal of Otolaryngology-Head & Neck Surgery: “Single-blind study of manuka honey in allergic fungal rhinosinusitis”
- BMC Complement Medicine and Therapies: “Ginger extract versus Loratadine in the treatment of allergic rhinitis: a randomized controlled trial”
- Scientific Reports: “Antimicrobial activity of apple cider vinegar against Escherichia coli, Staphylococcus aureus and Candida albicans; downregulating cytokine and microbial protein expression”
- Vicks: "Vicks VaopRub FAQ"
- St Luke's Health System: "Self-Care for Sinusitis"