10 Steps to Avoid Sinus Pain and Congestion
Colds, flu, allergens, and pollutants are the most common causes of sinus pain. Learn 10 steps you can take to avoid a sinus infection and the congestion it causes.
By Beth W. Orenstein
Medically Reviewed by Judy Mouchawar, MD, MSPH
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Sinus pain is one of the most common reasons people seek medical attention. Each year, more than 37 million Americans experience sinusitis symptoms like sinus pain, nasal congestion, and thick nasal discharge, according to the American Academy of Otolaryngology — Head and Neck Surgery. Those numbers are growing because of an increase in pollutants, along with a resistance to antibiotics.
What causes sinus pain and congestion? “The number one cause is allergies,” says Jyoti Gopal, MD, a family practice physician with the Lehigh Valley Health Network in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Some people have seasonal allergies and are bothered most during the spring and fall, when the pollen counts are high, she says, while others have year-round allergies that continually trigger their sinus pain and congestion.
The second leading cause is the common cold or flu, Dr. Gopal says. A cold, which is caused by a virus, can turn into a sinus infection. The cold virus attacks the lining of your sinuses, which respond by swelling; this results in narrowing of the drainage pathways in the sinuses and nose, according to the American Academy of Otolaryngology — Head and Neck Surgery. In response, you produce more mucus, which gets blocked in your swollen sinuses. Bacteria like to grow where the mucus builds up and sometimes cause a lingering sinus infection — an infection can linger even after the cold virus is gone.
Other causes of sinus pain, pressure, and congestion include:
- Pollutants.Air pollution, cigarette smoke, and chemical irritants such as pesticide sprays and household cleaners can inflame the sinus linings.
- Polyps.These are sac-like growths of inflamed tissue on the lining of the sinuses.
- Anatomical issues.A structural problem such as a deviated septum or nasal bone spur can prevent mucus from draining out of the sinus, Gopal says.
- Fungi.This is a growing problem, especially in people with weakened immune systems from conditions such as AIDS, leukemia, and diabetes. Fungi, just like bacteria, can cause a sinus infection, but will not respond to antibiotics. The most common fungus associated with sinusitis is aspergillus, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center.
- Swimming or diving.These activities can increase your risk for sinusitis because of pressure changes in the nose and sinuses.
Sinus Pain and Congestion: How to Avoid It
Can you prevent sinus pain and congestion? Probably not altogether, Gopal says, but you can take these steps to keep infections and allergens at bay:
- Wash your hands frequently.This is especially important during cold weather, when viruses can live longer on doorknobs and other surfaces, Gopal says.
- Get a flu shot yearly.By preventing the flu, you may also prevent a sinus infection, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
- Eat a well-balanced diet and get regular exercise.Staying in good health keeps your immune system on guard, according to Harvard Medical School.
- Quit smoking.Cigarette smoke can irritate sinuses, Harvard Medical School states.
- Use a humidifier.Dryness can lead to sinus pain. “You can run a hot shower and inhale the steam,” Gopal suggests. “Or put a steaming towel over your head — that’s an old remedy for relief from sinus pain.” If you use a humidification machine, make sure you clean it daily, following manufacturer’s directions, so that the humidifier itself does not become a source for sinus problems.
- Don’t overdo the antibiotics.Antibiotics will help if you have a bacterial infection, but they won’t do anything for viral infections. And if you take too many antibiotics, you can build up resistance to the medication, according to Harvard Medical School.
- Use a saline nasal solution.You can buy a saline solution at the drugstore or you can make your own by mixing 1/4 teaspoon of salt with 8 ounces of warm water. The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology recommends using iodide-free salt and distilled water (or pre-boiled and cooled water). If you are buying a premade saline drop, mist, or spray, make sure that it does not contain a decongestant.
- Try a neti pot.This nasal irrigation system, which comes from the ancient Ayurveda yoga tradition in India, has been used for centuries in the East and has become popular in the West in recent years. A neti pot allows a saline solution to be poured into the nasal passages, irrigating them to loosen mucus. You can find them at drugstores, nutrition centers, and health food stores. Be sure to follow directions to use only sterile, pre-boiled and cooled, or distilled water in your neti pot, Gopal says.
- Keep your windows closed.“If you have allergies, you don’t want to go outside or open the windows, especially between 5 a.m. and 10 a.m., because that’s when the pollen count is the highest,” Gopal says.
- Fight dust mites.Vacuum and wipe down all surfaces regularly, decrease clutter that can trap dust, and use dust mite covers on your pillows and mattresses.
Sinus pain can be worse for people with allergies and weakened immune systems, but following a healthy lifestyle and practicing good hygiene could save you from bothersome sinus pain and congestion.
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