Chronic sinusitis is a common condition in which the cavities around nasal passages (sinuses) become inflamed and swollen for at least 12 weeks, despite treatment attempts.
Also known as chronic rhinosinusitis, this condition interferes with drainage and causes mucus buildup. Breathing through your nose might be difficult. The area around your eyes and face might feel swollen, and you might have facial pain or tenderness.
Chronic sinusitis can be brought on by an infection, by growths in the sinuses (nasal polyps) or by a deviated nasal septum. The condition most commonly affects young and middle-aged adults, but it also can affect children.
At least two of the four primary signs and symptoms of chronic sinusitis must be present with confirmation of nasal inflammation for a diagnosis of the condition. They are:
- Thick, discolored discharge from the nose or drainage down the back of the throat (postnasal drainage)
- Nasal obstruction or congestion, causing difficulty breathing through your nose
- Pain, tenderness and swelling around your eyes, cheeks, nose or forehead
- Reduced sense of smell and taste in adults or cough in children
Other signs and symptoms can include:
- Ear pain
- Aching in your upper jaw and teeth
- Cough that might worsen at night
- Sore throat
- Bad breath (halitosis)
- Fatigue or irritability
Chronic sinusitis and acute sinusitis have similar signs and symptoms, but acute sinusitis is a temporary infection of the sinuses often associated with a cold. The signs and symptoms of chronic sinusitis last longer and often cause more fatigue. Fever isn't a common sign of chronic sinusitis, but you might have one with acute sinusitis.
Common causes of chronic sinusitis include:
- Nasal polyps. These tissue growths can block the nasal passages or sinuses.
- Deviated nasal septum. A crooked septum — the wall between the nostrils — may restrict or block sinus passages.
- Other medical conditions. The complications of cystic fibrosis, gastroesophageal reflux, or HIV and other immune system-related diseases can result in nasal blockage.
- Respiratory tract infections. Infections in your respiratory tract — most commonly colds — can inflame and thicken your sinus membranes and block mucus drainage. These infections can be viral, bacterial or fungal.
- Allergies such as hay fever. Inflammation that occurs with allergies can block your sinuses.
Your doctor will feel for tenderness in your nose and face and look inside your nose.
Other methods for diagnosing chronic sinusitis include:
- Nasal endoscopy. A thin, flexible tube (endoscope) with a fiber-optic light inserted through your nose allows your doctor to see the inside of your sinuses. This also is known as rhinoscopy.
- Imaging studies. Images taken using a CT scan or MRI can show details of your sinuses and nasal area. These might pinpoint a deep inflammation or physical obstruction that's difficult to detect using an endoscope.
- Nasal and sinus cultures. Cultures are generally unnecessary for diagnosing chronic sinusitis. However, when the condition fails to respond to treatment or is worsening, tissue cultures might help determine the cause, such as bacteria or fungi.
- An allergy test. If your doctor suspects that the condition might be triggered by allergies, he or she might recommend an allergy skin test. A skin test is safe and quick and can help pinpoint the allergen that's responsible for your nasal flare-ups.
The goal of treating chronic sinusitis is to:
- Reduce sinus inflammation
- Keep your nasal passages draining
- Eliminate the underlying cause
- Reduce the number of sinusitis flare-ups
Treatments to relieve symptoms
These treatments include:
- Saline nasal irrigation, with nasal sprays or solutions, reduces drainage and rinses away irritants and allergies.
Nasal corticosteroids. These nasal sprays help prevent and treat inflammation. Examples include fluticasone (Flonase, Veramyst), triamcinolone (Nasacort 24), budesonide (Rhinocort), mometasone (Nasonex) and beclomethasone (Beconase AQ, Qnasl, others).
If the sprays aren't effective enough, your doctor might recommend rinsing with a solution of saline mixed with drops of budesonide (Pulmicort Respules) or using a nasal mist of the solution.
- Oral or injected corticosteroids. These medications are used to relieve inflammation from severe sinusitis, especially if you also have nasal polyps. Oral corticosteroids can cause serious side effects when used long term, so they're used only to treat severe symptoms.
- Aspirin desensitization treatment, if you have reactions to aspirin that cause sinusitis. Under medical supervision, you're gradually given larger doses of aspirin to increase your tolerance.
Antibiotics are sometimes necessary for sinusitis if you have a bacterial infection. If your doctor can't rule out an underlying infection, he or she might recommend an antibiotic, sometimes with other medications.
If allergies are contributing to your sinusitis, allergy shots (immunotherapy) that help reduce the body's reaction to specific allergens might improve the condition.
In cases resistant to treatment or medication, endoscopic sinus surgery might be an option. For this procedure, the doctor uses a thin, flexible tube with an attached light (endoscope) to explore your sinus passages.
Depending on the source of obstruction, the doctor might use various instruments to remove tissue or shave away a polyp that's causing nasal blockage. Enlarging a narrow sinus opening also may be an option to promote drainage.