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.
When to see a doctor
You may have several episodes of acute sinusitis, lasting less than four weeks, before developing chronic sinusitis. You may be referred to an allergist or an ear, nose and throat specialist for evaluation and treatment.
Schedule an appointment with your doctor if:
- You've had sinusitis a number of times, and the condition doesn't respond to treatment
- You have sinusitis symptoms that last more than seven days
- Your symptoms don't improve after you see your doctor
See a doctor immediately if you have any of the following, which could indicate a serious infection:
- High fever
- Swelling or redness around your eyes
- Severe headache
- Double vision or other vision changes
- Stiff neck
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.
You're at increased risk of getting chronic or recurrent sinusitis if you have:
- A nasal passage abnormality, such as a deviated nasal septum or nasal polyps
- Asthma, which is highly connected to chronic sinusitis
- Aspirin sensitivity that causes respiratory symptoms
- An immune system disorder, such as HIV/AIDS or cystic fibrosis
- Hay fever or another allergic condition that affects your sinuses
- Regular exposure to pollutants such as cigarette smoke
Chronic sinusitis complications include:
- Meningitis. This infection causes inflammation of the membranes and fluid surrounding your brain and spinal cord.
- Other infections. Uncommonly, infection can spread to the bones (osteomyelitis) or skin (cellulitis).
- Partial or complete loss of sense of smell. Nasal obstruction and inflammation of the nerve for smell (olfactory nerve) can cause temporary or permanent loss of smell.
- Vision problems. If infection spreads to your eye socket, it can cause reduced vision or even blindness that can be permanent.
Take these steps to reduce your risk of getting chronic sinusitis:
- Avoid upper respiratory infections. Minimize contact with people who have colds. Wash your hands frequently with soap and water, especially before meals.
- Manage your allergies. Work with your doctor to keep symptoms under control.
- Avoid cigarette smoke and polluted air. Tobacco smoke and air contaminants can irritate and inflame your lungs and nasal passages.
- Use a humidifier. If the air in your home is dry, such as it is if you have forced hot air heat, adding moisture to the air may help prevent sinusitis. Be sure to keep the humidifier clean and free of mold with regular, thorough cleaning.