Are sinus infections contagious?

Reviewed by Theresa H. Care Delivery Manager & Family Nurse Practitioner

Time saver 5 min read

Oh great. You wake up with a stuffy nose, headache, sinus pressure and facial pain—all telltale symptoms of a sinus infection or sinusitis. Whether you’re a newbie to sinus infections or a seasoned pro, when your sinuses are under attack, you may have a lot of questions. For example, do you need to worry about spreading your sinus infection to others? Are sinus infections contagious?

When it comes to sinus infections, it’s important to identify the source of your infection. Did your sinus infection develop after a cold? Has your infection been lingering for weeks? Could allergies be behind your sinus problems?

How do you get a sinus infection?

A sinus infection can develop when there is swelling in the sinus cavities. If the sinuses become too swollen, they can narrow and become obstructed—making it difficult for mucus to drain. When mucus builds and backs up within sinus passages, it can become infected and voila—you get a sinus infection. The most common cause of a sinus infection is a viral cold.

Like any virus, the virus that causes the common cold is highly contagious. However, thankfully, every cold does not develop into a sinus infection. So while viral sinus infections are caused by cold viruses which are indeed very contagious, the sinus infections that result, are not contagious. If you get a viral sinus infection, it should resolve on its own within two weeks.

You may be thinking, wait … I thought the only way to clear up a sinus infection was by taking antibiotics. Nope, not true. Viral sinus infections won’t respond to antibiotics. And taking antibiotics when you don’t need to can be dangerous and contribute to antibiotic resistance. However, in the case where your sinus infection was spurred by a bacterial infection, antibiotics are exactly what you need to fight the infection.

Bacterial or viral?

Bacterial sinus infections occur when the sinuses become blocked and fill with fluid which then becomes a breeding ground for infection. A bacterial sinus infection may start out as a viral cold, but evolve into a bacterial infection when nasal passages and swollen sinuses are unable to drain and unhealthy bacteria grows. The duration of your sinus infection can provide clues to the underlying cause. For example, if your sinus infection doesn’t improve or resolve within 10 days, it’s more likely to be bacterial and require a prescription antibiotic.

In other cases, sinus infections may not be viral or bacterial but actually related to allergies. How do you know if your sinus infection could be courtesy of Fifi or Fido? Symptoms associated with allergic sinusitis mimic those related to viral and bacterial sinusitis. The main difference is that sinus infections caused by allergens are also accompanied by common allergy symptoms like watery eyes, sneezing and an itchy throat.

What can you do to ease sinus infection symptoms?

Sinus infections can make you feel really miserable. In addition to feeling like your head is trapped in a vice, you could develop a fever, sore throat and even tooth pain. Thankfully, there are several things you can do at home to ease symptoms.

  • Quiet pain – Take an over-the-counter medication such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen for discomfort and pain.
  • Try a nasal spray – Use an over-the-counter nasal spray such as fluticasone (Flonase) to reduce swelling and open nasal and sinus passages.
  • Opt for an oral med – Take guaifenesin (Mucinex) to help thin and drain mucus.
  • Get some rest – Make sure you’re getting enough sleep (seven to nine hours per night) and take it easy during the day.
  • Hydrate – Drink at least 64 oz. of water and/or other clear non-caffeinated and non-alcoholic liquids throughout the day.
  • Grab a warm compress – Ease pain and swelling by laying a warm washcloth over your sinuses.
  • Rinse your nasal passages – Use a neti pot to flush your sinuses with a saline solution.

Will a sinus infection go away on its own?

When you have a sinus infection, you want to do everything you can to make it go away. In cases where a sinus infection is viral, the best treatment is to follow the self-care tips outlined above and let your body’s immune system do its job.

The good news is that most sinus infections are viral and will go away on their own. It can, however, take time for your body to fight off the infection. In most cases, you should start to feel better within a week or two.

When should I seek treatment for a sinus infection?

If your sinus infection doesn’t go away or if you keep getting sinus infections, it’s a good idea to reach out to a medical provider. Sinus infections that last more than 10 days or that are recurrent or chronic in nature are more likely to be caused by a bacterial infection or allergies.

To help determine if your sinus infection may be bacterial or allergy-related, a medical provider will ask you a series of questions about your symptoms and how long you’ve been feeling ill.

If it’s suspected that your infection is bacterial, a provider can prescribe antibiotics to help clear up the infection.

Recurring sinus infections are often related to allergies. In many cases a person may have an allergy to something in their environment and not even know it. Over time, repeated exposure to allergens like dust and pollen can intensify symptoms like nasal congestion and an itchy throat and lead to sinus problems including infections.

If you suspect your chronic sinus problems and infections are related to an undiagnosed allergy, see a medical provider who can provide a treatment plan that addresses how to get your allergies under control.

How can I avoid getting a sinus infection?

While there’s no sure way to guarantee you won’t get a sinus infection, there are things you can do to reduce your risks. Because most sinus infections are viral, it’s important to take the same steps you would to avoid getting a cold or any other virus.

Sinus infection prevention tips

  • Wash your hands frequently
  • Avoid touching your nose, eyes or mouth
  • Limit contact with people who have colds or other viruses
  • Disinfect common household items and things like cellphones and shopping cart handles
  • Get plenty of sleep

If you suspect that your sinus infections are being triggered by allergies, it’s a good idea to take steps to avoid common allergens like pet dander, dust, pollen and smoke. You can also talk to a medical provider who can help determine the cause of your allergies and prescribe medications to keep your allergies in check.

Breathe easier

While unpleasant, sinus infections are a common health condition that can typically be treated at home with proper self-care and over-the-counter medications. If your sinus infection symptoms linger or keep coming back, it may be time to seek medical advice and care.

Virtuwell provides online treatment for sinus infections. Get the answers and help you need to relieve sinus pressure and feel better fast.

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