If you have pesky symptoms like congestion, facial pressure and post-nasal drip, they could be signs a sinus infection is setting up shop in your nasal cavity.
Sinus infections, better known as sinusitis, affect roughly 31 million people in the U.S. each year, and they spend more than $1 billion on over-the-counter meds to treat them, according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma, & Immunology.
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Because a little self-care is usually all that's needed to ease sinus symptoms, we asked several ENTs what they do when a sinus infection strikes — and how you can move along your own healing process.
1. ‘I Pop a Decongestant’
"When I feel the early signs of a sinus infection, I do what I can to facilitate drainage and allow it to pass on its own," Dr. Ephrat says. "It's important your sinuses are allowed to drain, as the buildup of mucous can eventually become infected with bacteria."
He accomplishes this with over-the-counter medication: "I prefer Mucinex D — which is a mucolytic and decongestant that lasts 12 hours — and take it daily until symptoms resolve."
Make sure to take it in the morning so it's out of your system by the evening, Dr. Ephrat adds, otherwise it may keep you up at night.
2. ‘I Use a Sinus Rinse’
When Nicole Aaronson, MD, pediatric ENT at Alfred I. duPont Hospital of Children in Wilmington, Delaware, has a sinus infection, irrigating or "rinsing" her sinuses with saline significantly — and immediately — improves her congestion.
"Sinus rinses help by manually flushing debris, irritants, mucous and bacteria out of the nose," she says. "I prefer the squeeze-bottle-style to the neti pot, but it's a matter of personal comfort."
How to Rinse Your Sinuses
- Fill a clean nasal wash bottle ($12.99; CVS.com) with either distilled water or boiled water cooled to room temperature (never tap water!). The bottle should be less than three months old, Dr. Aaronson says.
- Add saline packets according to the product's directions.
- Place the bottle in one nostril and lean your head slightly forward. Squeeze the bottle slowly and gently (squeezing too hard will force water up the eustachian tubes in the middle ear, which can be uncomfortable, Dr. Aaronson says.
- Repeat as necessary to relieve congestion and mucous buildup.
Dr. Aaronson recommends rinsing sinuses in the shower, so any mess can easily be washed away.
3. ‘I Stay Hydrated’
Another go-to move Dr. Aaronson uses to soothe sinus infection symptoms is staying hydrated — especially with hot tea.
"Hydrating helps to thin out the viscosity of mucous, making it easier to expel from your nose and sinuses," she says. "The steam from hot liquids is particularly helpful for thinning out nasal secretions and soothing your throat."
If her throat's particularly sore (from coughing or post-nasal drip), she adds honey to her tea to coat and soothe the mucous membranes. "There's also some data on the antibacterial properties of medical-grade manuka honey improving infections and speeding healing," she says.
4. ‘I Take an Anti-Inflammatory’
"During the first week of a sinus infection, I'll take an anti-inflammatory medication, such as Advil Cold & Sinus, to both decrease inflammation and reduce swelling," Ameet R. Kamat, MD, director of sinus and skull base surgery at White Plains Hospital in New York, tells LIVESTRONG.com. "This allows me to breathe easier and improves my ability to clear my sinuses."
Always follow the instructions on the packaging when taking over-the-counter meds, and talk to your doctor or pharmacist if you have concerns about side effects or interactions with other medications.
5. ‘I Turn to Steam’
Dr. Kamat also keeps a humidifier in his bedroom and takes super-steamy showers to "improve nasal lining hydration and decrease the viscosity of the mucous, so my body's better able to clear the infected material and drain my sinuses."
The result? An open airway and better breathing.
6. ‘I Keep Saline Spray on Standby’
Saline sprays work the same way as sinus rinses, helping to clear out mucous and soothe nasal passages.
"I like to use Euka's Infused Cold & Allergy Saline Spray throughout the day," says Beverly Hills-based ENT Shawn Nasseri, MD. "It's infused with essential oils, including eucalyptus, has glycerin for an extra boost of moisture and is alkaline for greater comfort."
How to Use Saline Spray
- For best results, point the nasal spray toward the back of one nostril while closing the other with your finger.
- With your mouth closed, gently squeeze the spray applicator and inhale slightly.
- The usual recommendation is two spritzes per nostril, but check the label of your chosen saline spray to be sure.
7. ‘I Use the Quadrupedal Position’
"If my facial pain or pressure is intense, I sometimes put my head towards the floor while on my hands and knees," Dr. Kamat says. This is what's called a quadrupedal position (similar to tabletop pose in yoga).
"The position of the cheek sinus opening is high along the nasal wall and known to be poor for natural or passive drainage due to gravity," Dr. Kamat says. "In this position, the opening is better able to drain, and has been shown to reduce the duration of a sinus infection."
8. ‘I Keep Tabs on My Symptoms’
Jonathan Overdevest, MD, assistant professor of rhinology and skull base surgery at Columbia University Irving Medical Center in New York, lets time call the shots on how best to treat his sinus infections.
"We all want to find ways to minimize the impact of our symptoms and introduce treatments that will expedite our recovery," he says. "The challenge lies in knowing what symptoms need higher level care (antibiotics, systemic steroids, expert evaluation) and those that will improve on their own."
Time becomes an important distinguishing factor in knowing what symptoms may require escalated treatment.
"In general, any perceived sinus infection that's accompanied by severe symptoms — persistently high fever, chills, changes in vision, unrelenting severe headache or outward alteration of appearance — would require more urgent physical evaluation," he says.
For less severe situations, monitor your symptoms to identify whether they've persisted for more than a week — or were bad, then initially improved, only to get worse again over a period of seven to 10 days. If either of these scenarios holds true, you're more likely to have an acute bacterial sinus infection that would benefit from a course of antibiotics.
"I personally remind myself of this timeframe when faced with sinus symptoms in an effort to avoid overexposure to antibiotics," Dr. Overdevest says. "While they're beneficial in certain scenarios, they'll have no effect on viral causes of illness, which are generally those that have symptoms lasting less than seven to 10 days."
- Antibiotics: “Clinical Significance of Manuka and Medical-Grade Honey for Antibiotic-Resistant Infections: A Systematic Review”
- International Journal of Otorhinolaryngology and Head and Neck Surgery: “A comparative study on quadrupedal and non-quadrupedal head position on recovery from chronic maxillary sinusitis in a tertiary hospital of Rohtas district, Bihar, India”
- American College of Allergy, Asthma, & Immunology: “Sinus Infection”
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.