Sinus infections are a real headache |

Sinus infections are a real headache

Editor’s note: The following was written by a medical student from Rochester, N.Y., who has been in Eagle working with Dr. Werner for about three weeks now. As part of her rotation, Dr. Werner has given her the opportunity to write this week’s column. Unfortunately, she didn’t leave her name with this week’s column.

Dear Doc:

I have a reoccurring sinus infection that will not go away. I am on my third go around of antibiotics. Is there anything I can do to keep this at bay? I am sick (literally) of this.

– Lisa from Eagle

Dear Lisa:

Sinus infections, which are all too common, can be a real bear and are often very difficult to cure. It is estimated that every year over 30 million Americans suffer from sinus infections, resulting in 18 million doctor visits. Including lost time from work, this results in a total cost of $5.8 billion!

But what exactly is a sinus infection? Sinusitis, the medical word for sinus infection, simply means an inflammation of the mucosal coverings of the sinuses.

But what are these pesky sinuses anyway, and why do we have them if they cause so much trouble? The sinuses are hollow cavities in the bones of the face whose purpose, quite honestly, is somewhat controversial. They are thought to help warm and filter the air we breathe in, decrease the weight of our skulls, and help in vocalization of the sounds we make. These hollow cavities are lined with protective mucus membranes that, when functioning properly, sweep away potentially harmful and unwanted particles we breathe in through small holes that lead into the nose. The problem comes when they get clogged and can no longer drain out the bad stuff.

But why do they get clogged? The common cold, which causes inflammation of those mucus membranes, is usually the culprit. Once the holes are plugged up, the mucus has nowhere to go, so it collects in the sinuses, which then become the perfect breeding ground for the bacteria that would normally get swept away. Then, you find that what you thought was going to be merely the sniffles all of a sudden becomes throbbing headaches, nasal congestion, facial pain, fevers and sometimes the inability to function. Seasonal allergies and structural nasal abnormalities can also trigger or further aggravate sinusitis.

So what can you do to get rid of sinusitis? There are several over-the-counter medications that can help decrease the inflammation and open up the sinuses to help them drain. Decongestants, like pseudoephedrine, can be very effective, but remember to use them cautiously as they can cause tremors and insomnia. They also can be dangerous for people who have high blood pressure or heart problems, so check with your doctor first if you’re concerned. You can try nasal saline sprays and humidifiers to help keep the sinuses moist and promote drainage. Warm compresses over the face can be remarkably soothing and will help open things up, too. You can also get a prescription from your doctor for an inhaled nasal steroid. Finally, as with all respiratory infections, you should drink plenty of liquids to stay well hydrated. But if you’ve tried all this, and your symptoms persist for more than 5 days, you may need a prescription for an antibiotic to wipe out the bacterial infection that has built up.

Unfortunately, like Lisa in Eagle, sometimes that’s still not enough to get rid of the infection. So then what? Sometimes, sinusitis can be more severe than a simple round of antibiotics can handle. It may be that a different antibiotic is needed to treat the specific bug causing your infection. Or, you may need a CT scan to see if there are any structural abnormalities of the sinuses that are causing them to be infected. Finally, a referral to see an otolaryngologist, also known as an ENT (ear, nose and throat) doctor, may be necessary. In rare cases, either surgical drainage of the sinuses or surgical correction of an abnormality is needed to make you well. So, if you have a sinus infection that really has you down, or just won’t go away, you need to see your doctor to discuss what else can be done.

Please keep your questions coming in! The only bad question is the unanswered one!

Dr. Drew Werner of the Eagle Valley Medical Center writes a weekly column for the Daily. He encourages health questions. Write him c/o Editor, Vail Daily, by e-mail to or P.O. Box 81, Vail, 81658.

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