Do I Have a Cold or Is It a Sinus Infection?
Dr. Ameet Kamat, Otolaryngologist/Sinus Specialist
December 20, 2019
Lingering symptoms could require the help of a sinus specialist.
It’s not unusual this time of year to see many people flocking to their doctors’ offices with a runny nose, congestion, sneezing and headache. The common cold or in some cases even fall allergies are usual suspects. However, if the “my-head-and-nose-are-constantly- killing-me” symptoms have been lingering for more than a few weeks, or seem to go away partially but then come back quickly, you might be suffering from a chronic sinus infection or recurrent sinus infections.
Sinus infections are very common – just take stroll through your local drugstore and you will find entire aisles devoted to antihistamines, decongestants, and pain relievers. Sinus problems affect 35 million people in the US alone.
Symptoms of a sinus infection include:
- Facial pain and pressure
- Runny nose, sometimes discolored
- Postnasal drip
- Decreased smell/taste
When these symptoms last longer than three months in any respect or go away initially with medicine, but quickly recur once that medication is finished, more advance care is typically necessary.
What are the sinuses?
The sinuses are four sets of air cavities situated around the nose. They contain mucus membranes that humidify the air we breathe and collect dust, microbes, and other pollutants. An important part of this process involves the cilia, the hair-like cells lining the sinuses that help to move the mucus out of the nose and into the throat, where it is swallowed and expelled through the stomach.
Sinuses can become inflamed through a virus like the common cold, bacteria, allergens or sometimes a fungus. When this happens, the air cavities can’t drain, the cilia can’t clear mucus properly, and the sinuses become the perfect breeding ground for bacteria which cause a constant or recurrent infection.
How are sinus infections treated?
Although sinus surgery has come a long way and is typically very successful, for me it is always the last resort. Often times, if we can get to the bottom of the initial cause, including what environmental or lifestyle factors might be involved, surgery may not be necessary. The first-line treatment is usually nasal steroid sprays, oral antibiotics and steroids, and/or nasal washes to see how the sinuses respond to those therapies.
What happens when medicine alone is not effective?
When all else fails, a minimally invasive procedure is a great option for many people suffering from a chronic sinus infection or recurrent sinus infections. Office procedures such as balloon sinuplasty is an excellent method to improve sinus drainage and aeration without general anesthesia or days off from work. This is typically best suited for patients with recurrent sinus infections or a more mild chronic sinus infection.
With a moderate to severe chronic sinus infection, or when there are more structural issues such as a deviated septum or large turbinates (skin folds in the nose), minimally invasive sinus surgery is employed. Sinus surgery is not one-size-fits-all and can involve CT image guidance, micro-instruments and stents coated with medications for precision and faster recovery. Much of what we do in the surgical suite these days is geared toward preventing the need for a future procedure.
Surgery is different for each patient and is modified based on the cause of the infection, the severity of their symptoms, and the physical structure of their nasal cavity. Think of the sinuses as a long hallway with all the doors shut (the doors are the narrow openings to the sinuses and the rooms are the sinuses). During the procedure, doctors surgically enlarge the openings of the air pockets by removing unnecessary bone, so there’s no longer a “door” and the sinus is completely open to the nasal cavity or “hallway.” This helps to relieve any blockages, prevent future clogs, and ensure we can get the medicines into the sinuses directly to treat infections before they start without affecting the rest of the body. After surgery, nasal washes are usually sufficient to maintain healthy sinuses.
There’s no bruising, change in appearance, or uncomfortable post-surgical packing to make it seem like you’ve even had surgery. The initial discomfort fades quickly, and patients usually report feeling so much better after the first week.
Can you prevent sinus infections?
The best way to prevent sinus infections is to practice the same good personal hygiene habits for avoiding a cold or flu. Wash your hands often to avoid getting sick in the first place, and treat symptoms as soon as you feel like something is coming on. Nasal irrigation bottles with distilled water work extremely well at preventing initial infections. However, sometimes there are factors out of your control and it is those times where the help of a sinus specialist can be most useful.
Dr. Ameet Kamat is an Otolaryngologist and Rhinologist currently seeing patients in our White Plains, Armonk and Somers locations. To make an appointment with Dr. Kamat, call (914) 849-3755.