Sinus infection pain: $11 billion spent annually in U.S.

1 in 8 adults, or about 31 million Americans, receive a diagnosis, and the symptoms can linger for weeks.

By: Ashley Schwab .

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The struggle is real when dealing with a sinus infection. Whether it’s fatigue during the day, interruptions during sleep or aching pressure and swelling, a sinus infection can make life miserable.

Sean Johnson, M.D., an ear, nose and throat surgeon at Sanford Health, explains what a sinus infection, also known as sinusitis, is and when should you see an ENT specialist.

What it is

“Sinuses are hollow cavities filled with air located on either side of your nose. They have small openings, called ostium, which connect with your nasal passage,” Dr. Johnson said.

“A primary purpose of sinuses is to make mucus, which with your nose, helps humidify and adjust the temperature of the air you breathe. During sinusitis, the tissue in your nose and sinuses becomes inflamed and swollen. This swelling can block the sinus openings, causing mucus to build up.”

The American Academy of Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery estimates that 1 in 8 adults receive a diagnosis of a sinus infection each year. And $11 billion dollars spent is on managing sinusitis in the U.S. That is around 31 million Americans afflicted annually.

Symptoms of sinusitis often include thick nasal drainage, reduced sense of smell, nasal congestion, facial pressure, facial pain and dental pain. Many of these symptoms actually occur because your immune system is fighting off and removing the infection, but it leaves you congested, often unable to smell, and feeling tired, groggy and in pain.

When to see a doctor

A sinus infection is typically due to viruses, such as the common cold, but it can turn into a bacterial infection. Bacterial sinus infections usually start out as viral infections. But symptoms may not improve or may get worse after 10 days. In this case, your primary care physician may recommend starting an antibiotic.

“Because many sinus infections are viral, antibiotics can be ineffective,” Dr. Johnson said. “Symptoms usually get better on their own after seven to 10 days. Many over-the-counter medications, such as nasal saline (salt water) sprays, nasal steroid sprays and decongestants, can be effective at reducing symptoms of viral sinus infections.”

“Some patients, however, have complications of sinusitis, have symptoms that never seem to go away after several weeks despite multiple courses of medications or even experience multiple infections a year. These patients could benefit from evaluation by an ENT surgeon,” Dr. Johnson said.

What a specialist offers

ENT surgeons provide care for difficult cases of sinusitis where conventional methods have failed. An evaluation is completed to identify the underlying problem and tackle it. Medication and other options are always first before resorting to surgery. During the initial evaluation, the ENT may use:

  • Nasal endoscopy: placing a small camera into the nose. This allows ENTs to see if patients have a structural reason for their symptoms. In people who have had sinus surgery, it is sometimes possible to see into the sinuses themselves.
  • Computed tomography (CT) scan: a special type of X-ray imaging technique, helping doctors see into the sinuses, even in patients who have not had surgery.

“There are two main surgical procedures,” Dr. Johnson said. “Functional endoscopic sinus surgery, or FESS, uses tiny cameras and instruments in the nose. A more recent addition to the sinus surgery world is balloon sinuplasty. A balloon  inflates within a blocked sinus opening. This technique may be done alone or in conjunction with FESS.”

Due to advancements in health care and technology, nasal surgery is more convenient than ever. Sinus surgery is usually a same-day surgery where patients can go home after they have recovered enough from anesthesia, and patients are often able to return to a normal routine within a few days. Furthermore, because surgery is done through the nostrils, there is often no outward sign patients even had surgery.

Sanford Health ENT specialists also care for a variety of other conditions affecting hearing, sleep, speech and more:

  • Pediatrics: ear tubes / tonsils and adenoids
  • Sinus and allergy
  • Hearing and balance
  • Hearing aids
  • Sleep and snoring
  • Head and neck cancer
  • Cleft lip and palate
  • Hemangiomas/birthmarks
  • Voice