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Sinusitis (sinus infection)

Sinusitis is swelling of the sinuses, usually caused by an infection. It's common and usually clears up on its own within 2 to 3 weeks.

Medicines can help if it's taking a long time to go away.

Check if you have sinusitis

Sinusitis is common after a cold or the flu.

Symptoms of sinusitis include:

  • pain, swelling and tenderness around your cheeks, eyes or forehead
  • a blocked nose
  • reduced sense of smell
  • green or yellow mucus from your nose
  • a sinus headache
  • a high temperature of 38 degrees Celsius or above
  • toothache
  • bad breath

Signs of sinusitis in young children may also include:

  • irritability
  • difficulty feeding
  • difficulty breathing through their mouth

What the sinuses are

The sinuses are small, empty spaces behind your cheekbones and forehead. They connect to the inside of the nose.

Sinusitis causes the lining of the sinuses to swell up. This stops mucus draining into your nose and throat properly, making you feel blocked up.

Treating sinusitis yourself

You can often treat mild sinusitis without seeing a GP by:

  • getting plenty of rest
  • drinking plenty of fluids
  • taking painkillers like paracetamol or ibuprofen
  • holding a warm clean flannel over your face for a few minutes several times a day
  • cleaning your nose with a salt water solution to ease congestion

Do not give aspirin to children under 16

How a pharmacist can help with sinusitis

A pharmacist can advise you about medicines that can help, such as:

  • decongestant nasal sprays, drops or tablets to unblock your nose
  • salt water nasal sprays or solutions to rinse out the inside of your nose

You can buy nasal sprays without a prescription, but decongestant nasal sprays should not be used for more than a week.

Some decongestant tablets also contain paracetamol or ibuprofen. Be careful when taking painkillers and a decongestant. Do not take more than the recommended dose.

When to see a GP

See a GP if:

  • your symptoms are severe
  • painkillers don't help or your symptoms get worse
  • your symptoms don't improve after a week
  • you keep getting sinusitis

Treatment for sinusitis from a GP

Your GP may be able to recommend other medicines to help with your symptoms, such as:

  • steroid nasal sprays or drops - to reduce the swelling in your sinuses
  • antihistamines - if an allergy is causing your symptoms
  • antibiotics - if bacterial infection, very unwell or at risk of complications (more rare)

Antibiotics are often not needed, as sinusitis is usually caused by a virus.

You might need to take steroid nasal sprays or drops for a few months. They sometimes cause irritation, sore throats or nosebleeds.

Your GP may refer you to an ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist if:

  • these medicines don't help with your sinusitis
  • your sinusitis has lasted longer than 3 months (chronic sinusitis)
  • you keep getting sinusitis

They may also recommend surgery in some cases.

Surgery for sinusitis

Surgery to treat chronic sinusitis is called functional endoscopic sinus surgery (FESS).

FESS is carried out under general anaesthetic (where you're asleep).

The surgeon can widen your sinuses by either:

  • removing some of the blocked skin tissue
  • inflating a tiny balloon in the blocked sinuses, then removing it

page last reviewed: 02/12/2020
next review due: 02/12/2023