A sinus infection can bring pain, pressure, fever, and coughing. And many times, it feels just like a cold. One could easily wonder: Are these infections contagious? Should I stay away from others while sick?
The answer is … well, maybe. Sinus infections might be contagious, but the situation varies, depending on what you’re infected with. And that can be hard to determine. Follow along as we delve into what causes sinus infections, and whether yours might be contagious.
What Are Sinus Infections?
Your sinuses are air-filled chambers behind and near your nose and eyes. These chambers warm incoming air that’s cold. The sinuses also filter out problematic particles (pollen, dust, bacteria, viruses) that might otherwise get into your lungs. When the tissues surrounding those chambers become inflamed, it’s called sinusitis. This can be caused by allergens, bacterial infections, viral infections, and other problems.
The anatomy of the sinuses
There are four main sinuses in your head. The largest spaces are behind your cheeks. But you also have sinuses in your forehead, between your eyes, and even behind your eyes. They’re lined with mucous membranes, and they’re connected to your nasal passages through small openings.
What happens when the sinuses become infected?
Truth? You feel bad. Perhaps not right away — but count on it: it’s coming. When the sinuses sense invaders, like viruses or bacteria, the tissues swell with mucus. That’s your body’s way of trying to flush out invaders and keep them from moving into your respiratory system.
Common symptoms of a sinus infection
The swelling leads to pain and pressure in and around your face. Facial pain can get in the way of your enjoyment of a day. That can be accompanied by headache, fever, fatigue, bad breath, sore throat, and a runny or stuffy nose. You might have post-nasal drip, which is when your sinuses drain down the back of your throat. That often triggers coughing, since the drainage tends to go right into your lungs. It’s no fun at all.
Causes of Sinus Infections
There isn’t one particular culprit that causes sinus infection symptoms. That’s why sinus infections are tricky, both to diagnose and to treat.
The many different types of sinus infections
A sinus infection—called acute sinusitis if it is really bad—may result from several invaders. The main culprits are:
- A cold virus is the cause of most sinus infections. The cold might not start out as sinusitis. Nevertheless, sinus swelling from a cold makes the perfect breeding ground for further viral infection.
- Bacterial sinus infections are much less common. Swelling and mucus from a cold helps bacteria settle in your sinuses and spread. If it is determined that a bacterium is responsible, it is referred to as bacterial sinusitis.
- Pollen/allergies. Many folks are allergic to pollen, dust, or pet dander. They might have sinus pain, or they may just suffer from a runny nose. Microscopic pollen granules, sometimes as small as a virus or bacteria, can trigger that “invader” response. Technically, it is not an infection. However, swollen tissues and excessive mucus offer optimal breeding grounds for viruses or bacteria that wander in.
- Fungal spores. Though uncommon, spores—the “seeds” of a fungus—can trigger sinusitis. Fungal spores are tiny and can cause cold symptoms and sinusitis, like pollen. It is rare that a fungal infection grows into a mass or destroys tissue. That mainly occurs in some third world countries or in patients with severely compromised immune systems.
Risk factors for developing sinus Infections
For viral sinus infections, bacterial infections, or even fungal or allergy related infections, there are underlying risk factors.
If you have a deviated septum—which when the thin wall between your nasal passages is displaced to one side—you’re more at risk. When the septum isn’t straight, there are often draining issues or airflow blockages, which can contribute to infections.
Other contributors are: smoking, air pollution, nasal polyps, swimming in polluted water, and asthma. Even over the counter nasal decongestants, if misused or overused, can provoke trouble. Along with allergies, these are the most common causes of sinus infections.
Are Sinus Infections Contagious?
As we’ve seen, it’s the underlying cause that makes sinus infections contagious. When you don’t know the cause, it’s difficult to predict contagion chances. So all infected people should take precautions.
What does it mean for a disease to be contagious?
When something is contagious, as a medical term, it means that it is easily spread from one person to another. Only bacteria or viruses are generally spread between people. Allergies can’t be spread between people, although people can carry allergens (pollen, dust, chemicals) on their person.
How sinus infections can spread
- If you’re sick, you could spread an infection by wiping your nose or mouth with your hand and then touching doorknobs, food/plates/utensils, handrails, toys, phones.
- For a healthy person, it’s the reverse—touching something contaminated and then touching your nose, mouth, or eyes.
- Shaking hands with an infected person is another route.
- Sneezing expels microscopic particles of mucus and saliva into the air. Those particles are often laden with germs.
- Coughing into the air also expels germ-carrying particles.
- Clothing can be contaminated if it comes from an infected person. Especially if the sick person has taken the precaution of coughing or sneezing into a sleeve or elbow.
The likelihood of contracting a sinus infection from another person
It’s tough to put a number on the chance of developing a sinus infection. Most sinus infections are due to viruses, and that virus can be spread. However, even if someone else breathes in or ingests that virus, it doesn’t mean they’ll get sinusitis. Most of the responsible viruses are the same ones that cause the common cold. So, some type of cold could be the result of infection. But that cold may eventually lead to a sinus infection.
If you have bacterial sinusitis, it’s difficult to spread the bacteria enough to infect others—but still, precautions are suggested.
Allergic sinusitis can’t be spread—no germs are involved.
Keeping Your Distance
Are Sinus Infections Contagious?
Sinus infections can occur for a number of reasons, some of which may cause them to be contagious. Determining cause can be tricky so it's important to consult with your Allergy & Asthma doctor.REQUEST AN APPOINTMENT
Prevention and Treatment of Sinus Infections
There are many steps that you can take to avoid sinus infections and to avoid spreading infections. Treatments vary from simple to potent.
Tips for preventing sinus infections
- As noted, touching contaminated objects is a common way of spreading disease. Wash your hands often and use alcohol-based hand sanitizer in between washings. That goes for both the infected and their possible victims.
- Don’t touch your eyes, nose, and mouth — especially when you’re in public. It’s the way most infections get into your body. One simple touch is all it takes.
- If you’re troubled by nasal polyps (tissue growths in your nose) or a deviated septum, take extra care. You’re more susceptible to sinus infections. Wash and sanitize often.
- If you’re sick, wear a face mask to contain any germ-laden particles that you might sneeze or cough onto others. In any case, always cover your nose and mouth when you sneeze or cough. And wash/sanitize your hands afterward.
Common treatments for sinus infections
Sinus infections occur for a variety of reasons. If it’s a bacterial sinus infection, it’s probably going to linger for seven to ten days, likely longer. It tends to get worse if untreated. A physician may prescribe antibiotics to fight the infection.
With viral sinusitis, most cases resolve on their own in five to seven days. Antibiotics don’t kill viruses, so they won’t help. Most of the time, you just have to ride out the storm. Get an annual flu shot to help you resist some of the viruses that could cause sinusitis.
There is chronic sinusitis to consider, as well. Be sure to get the appropriate medical help.
Over-the-counter medications may help alleviate symptoms. Here are some home remedies that can help. Always follow directions and dosages closely, even for over-the-counter drugs:
- Nasal sprays or pill-form decongestants open up nasal passages. However, there is potential for side effects when using decongestants and these should be reviewed before taking
- Acetaminophen or ibuprofen is good for pain relief, and it helps reduce swelling, too.
- A warm compress—a moist, heated, folded towel—held to your face is often soothing.
- A steam treatment adds moisture to your sinuses and improves drainage. Try hot showers if you don’t have a humidifier.
- Saline nasal sprays can also help flush out mucus and soothe tissues.
Drink plenty of fluids. Milk and dairy ingestion can make congestion feel worse in some people.
- <h3>When to seek medical attention for a sinus infection
See your doctor right away:
- If the sinusitis goes for two weeks or more or if conditions worsen.
- If a fever
- If your symptoms improve, but then worsen.
- If you develop intense headaches and strong sinus pressure.
If you experience breathing trouble, new neck stiffness, confusion, or vision issues, call 911 for medical care or go to the emergency room.
About Sami Nallamshetty, MD, FACAAI
Dr. Sami Nallamshetty specializes in pediatric and adult allergy and immunology. Her studies on allergies and asthma were published in top scientific journals. She was also recognized by her peers and Tampa Magazine as a Top Doctor in Allergy, Asthma & Immunology in 2022, 2021 and 2016.
Dr. Nallamshetty calls on her extensive education, Fellowship, and experience to overcome her patients’ medical problems. As a local in Tampa Bay since 2008, she has seen many seasons of allergy sufferers. Her passion for patient care has helped many patients alleviate their illnesses and allergies.
If you suffer from allergy and asthma symptoms, schedule an appointment with Dr. Nallamshetty and her team today.