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By Joseph Chavez Carey, MD
MIDDLETOWN – Sinus issues often become more bothersome for some people as colder weather sets in. However, while weather-related changes to atmospheric pressure can lead to sinus pain, it’s important to understand that sinus infections are not caused simply by exposure to cold weather. Sinus infections are typically caused by being exposed to a virus or, less commonly, bacteria. We find ourselves suffering from sinus infections more during colder months as a result of being confined together in closer quarters, where germs are spread more easily.
Most of us are familiar with the tell-tale signs of a sinus infection. They begin with congestion and sinus pressure, and can also include increased mucus production. Some patients with really bad sinus infections develop fevers. But, not every nose or stuffy head is a sinus infection.
Allergies or other reactions to irritants in the air can also cause symptoms similar to a sinus infection. Many times, the condition known as rhinitis, which affects the mucus membranes of your nose, is mistaken for a sinus infection because it causes the same runny nose and sneezing. If rhinitis spreads up into your sinuses, then we start calling it sinusitis or rhinosinusitis, but that’s more or less a kind of cold.
Similar to most viral illnesses and colds, run-of-the-mill sinus infections don’t require antibiotics and go away within seven to ten days. I advise my patients to take over the counter medications to alleviate symptoms, and just wait it out. If you have a sinus infection accompanied by high fever, if your symptoms persist beyond that week to ten day period, or if you are having severe pains and is getting worse over time, those are reasons to ask your doctor if antibiotics are the right course of treatment.
Once a sinus infection has subsided, it is not unusual to experience a lingering cough caused by post nasal drip. It’s an annoying condition, but its symptoms are easily mitigated. Rinsing your sinuses with saline by using a neti pot is very effective. Steam treatments at home can also offer temporary relief by opening passageways and breaking up mucus. You can also opt for over-the-counter (OTC ) medications for short-term relief. Look for products with active ingredients such as pseudoephedrine and phenylephrine, which open sinus passages, or guaifenesin, which helps thin and break up mucus.
I have had patients come in and say they felt better for a few days after OTC medications, only to have their symptoms return. That’s inevitably when they ask about antibiotics. Like I’ve said, sinus infections very rarely call for antibiotics. Since antibiotics come with their own set of side effects, I typically suggest skipping them and sticking with a few extra days of OTC medicines for relief and just waiting your symptoms out.
Some patients, even those who follow all the right medical advice to treat their symptoms, experience chronic or recurrent issues. For these cases, it is possible that a daily dose of a drug like loratadine could help keep the inflammation down and symptoms minimized. Or, your doctor may prescribe a nasal steroid spray. In rare cases, your doctor may suggest you undergo a medical procedure to open your nasal passages.
Even better than effective treatment of your sinus symptoms, though, is avoiding sinus infections all together if you can. This time of year, take the same steps you would to avoid the flu or a cold: Wash your hands regularly; don’t touch your eyes or mouth; don’t share utensils; avoid sick people and stay home if you’re sick; always cough and sneeze into a tissue. Also, if you smoke, stop smoking. And, do the things that contribute to a healthy immune system: Get 8 hours of sleep every night; avoid as much stress as possible; eat a balanced diet with plenty of fruits and veggies.
Hopefully, this information will help you make it through these cold weather months as healthy and happy as possible. But, if you do come down with sinus-related issues, take the time to take care of yourself and take the right steps to recover. If your sinus symptoms escalate to a fever, linger for a long time, become persistent or otherwise troublesome, you should seek the advice of your health care provider.
Board-certified in Family Medicine and fluent in Spanish, Dr. Chavez Carey received his medical degree from New York University School of Medicine and completed his internship and residency at Contra Costa Regional Medical Center, in California. Visit www.orangeregionalmedicalgroup.org