Sorting out sinusitis

If you have a bacterial sinus infection with more than mild symptoms, an antibiotic may relieve symptoms and help you recover sooner. 

This post has been updated November 7, 2018

After my recent series about antibiotic use a reader asked a question about sinus infections.

“How do I know if I need an antibiotic for a sinus infection?”

It’s really a 2-part answer, so I’ll answer the second part first, it’s easier.

If you have a bacterial sinus infection with more than mild symptoms, an antibiotic may relieve symptoms and help you recover sooner.

So, you’re probably asking-

“How do I, or my doctor, know that I have a bacterial sinus infection?”

That is the more difficult question. Like so many things in medicine, maybe even most, figuring out what is wrong is the hard part. Once we know that, choosing one or more possible treatments is often rather straight forward.SORTING OUT SINUSITIS



Your symptoms may be one of these  diagnoses, not sinusitis

The common cold, the most likely diagnosis- this is more correctly called acute viral rhinosinusitis. The medical prefix “rhino” refers to the nose, for obvious reasons.

a rhinoceros carved into a rock
photo by Dr. Aletha at Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Florida



Allergic rhinitis, commonly called just “allergies” or hay fever; again, a more correct diagnosis is allergic rhinosinusitis

Since the nose and sinuses are directly connected, problems in one part affect the other.

diagram of the nose and sinuses
small passageways connect the nose and sinuses



An abscessed tooth, or other dental problem

Cellulitis, an infection of the deeper layer of the skin

Zoster, known by its common name shingles; prior to the onset of the rash, there may be pain alone

Migraine– the headache of migraine can cause pain in the sinus area

Angioedema – You may not be familiar with this, it’s an uncommon type of allergic reaction characterized by swelling, mostly in the facial area. Once a patient called me requesting an antibiotic for a sinus infection. My office nurse wisely scheduled an appointment for her to see me. Rather than a sinus infection, she was experiencing angioedema from her blood pressure medication. These reactions can progress into life threatening swelling of the throat; I’m glad I didn’t try treating this with an antibiotic.

How do doctors diagnose bacterial sinusitis?

The gold standard for diagnosing any bacterial infection is to identify the bacteria by growing it in a lab, a test called a culture. For that, we need a sample of the tissue or fluid from the infected area. Since the sinuses are deep in the face, there is no easy way to do this. So most of the time we rely on symptoms and exam.  We look for

We consider prescribing an antibiotic for sinusitis when

  • Symptoms have been present 10 or more days, and/or are worsening
  • Severe symptoms, such as pain not relieved with mild pain meds or persistent fever,
  • People with conditions that impair their immune systems, like cancer and its treatment, or people with diabetes
  • People with allergic rhinitis often seem to be more prone to bacterial sinus infections or take longer to get better

These of course are all general guidelines; every patient, every illness is different, so different approaches may be needed. This is a framework for us to work from, not hard and fast rules.

a rhinoceros
We encountered this rhino during a ride through Animal Kingdom, Disney World, Florida.



Other ways to feel better when treating sinus infections as well as colds,  allergic rhinitis, bronchitis and influenza include rest, increasing oral fluids ,and moisturizing the nose and sinuses. (The following includes affiliate links that may pay this blog a commission at no additional cost to you. )

Portable humidifiers are an easy way to relieve dryness in the nose and sinuses.

A Neti pot or sinus rinse bottle are safe, easy ways to relieve dryness, congestion and clear out excess mucous from the nose and sinuses. Always use distilled or boiled water and ask your doctor before using.







Learn about sinusitis from an expert in otorhinolaryngology

Dr. Deborah Burton, a pediatric ENT-ear, nose, throat- specialist blogs at Dr. Momma Says. In her companion podcast she explains-



Thanks for joining me and Dr. Burton to explore options for sinus problems. Please share and stay well.

Dr. Aletha – sharing the HEART of health