Most of us have suffered through a sinus infection, or sinusitis, at some point in our lives. It is no picnic, especially when they linger and nothing you try brings relief.

Sometimes sinus infections linger because you may not be treating them properly, or possibly taking the wrong medication. In rare cases, a lingering sinus infection is a sign of a more serious problem.

Is Your Sinus Infection Bacterial or Viral?

Contrary to what people may think, all sinus infections are not the same, according to the Cleveland Clinic.  A sinus infection can be due to a bacterial infection or a viral infection.

A doctor can take a nasal swab culture and send it to the lab for testing it to see if a sinus infection is viral or bacterial. This is usually unnecessary unless a sinus infection lasts longer than 10 days. Viral sinus infections typically clear up within that time frame.

Sinusitis that lasts longer than 10 days may a sign of a bacterial infection, which would necessitate a trip to the doctor. If the doctor determines that the sinusitis is in fact due to a bacterial infection, then antibiotics may be in order.

Why You Should Not Delay Antibiotics

In addition to providing much desired relief from chronically congested sinuses, antibiotics also may ward off rare yet very serious sinusitis-related complications that arise when the infection spreads to the brain or eyes.  Although rare, sinusitis in the rear center of the head can spread to the brain, causing brain abscess and meningitis.

If sinusitis spreads to the eyes, cavernous sinus thrombosis may develop. Cavernous sinus thrombosis is a condition that causes redness and swelling around the eyes, impaired vision and possibly blindness if left untreated. Treatment for serious cases typically involves IV antibiotics and a CT scan to determine if fluid needs to be drained.

When to Call Your Doctor

The Mayo Clinic suggests making an appointment with your doctor if you notice the following:

  •  Your sinus infection lasts longer than a week
  •  You have recurring sinus infections that do not respond to treatment
  •  Your symptoms persist or worsen after you see your doctor

See a doctor immediately if you have the following symptoms:

  •  Confusion
  •  Double vision or other vision changes
  •  Pain or swelling around the eyes
  •  Severe headache
  •  Shortness of breath
  •  Stiff neck
  •  Swelling in the forehead

Even though it may be mere bout of nasal congestion that will not quit, sinusitis is still an illness. Any illness can develop from a mild condition to a potentially life-threatening one if you do not treat it properly and promptly.

It is better to error on the side of caution than to than to find yourself wishing you had gotten treatment much sooner. If you have symptoms that concern you, no matter how minute they seem, see your doctor.

By Ramie A Tritt, MD, President, Atlanta ENT