Sinus Infection
How and Why You Get a Sinus Attack

Sinus infection overview: You have a common cold, but after a week of dosing yourself, you've got a fever and you feel achy and miserable.

On top of that, your head feels as if it's about to explode... and to cap it all, you can’t breathe through your nose, your cheeks feel tender and there’s a dull, aching throb in your upper jaw and teeth.

You know it’s probably a sinus attack but you hope you’re wrong; a friend of yours just came through some rather unpleasant surgery that cost her an arm and a leg.

You make an appointment and drag yourself to your health care provider.

After asking a few questions about your symptoms, she gives you a physical examination and calls for some X-rays.

The doctor finally confirms your suspicions by diagnosing acute sinus infection brought about by the common cold. 

You mention your friend and she tells you not to worry. Everything looks fine and you probably won't require specialized treatment

She then prescribes some medication and recommends a saline sinus flush using a "Netti Pot" or a mechanized sinus irrigator, together with two hot, steamy showers a day in order to loosen the mucous (see Sinus Home Remedies).


Where Are The Sinuses Located?

You have four pairs of cavities in the skull, called paranasal sinuses.

The names and locations of these cavities are:

  1. Frontal sinuses located over the eyes in the forehead

  2. Maxillary sinuses inside each cheekbone

  3. Ethmoid sinuses behind the bridge of the nose and between the eyes

  4. Sphenoid sinuses behind the upper region of the nose and spreading behind both eyes

Each of these is connected to the others by passages lined with a mucous membrane. The mucous membrane secretes a thin slimy fluid to:

  • Keep the sinuses moist

  • Trap airborne bacteria, dust and pollutants

  • Heat and humidify the inhaled air on its way to the lungs

Specialized tiny hairs called cilia grow through the mucous membrane; these continually sweep back and forth and are designed to propel the mucus and trapped particles outward via tubes called the osteomeatal complex (OMC).

The OMC itself is connected to nasal passages in order to:

  • Maintain a pressure balance between the sinuses and the outside air.
  • Provide an exit point for unwanted dirt and bacteria.

Healthy sinuses are filled with air and a small amount of thin mucus that drains away continuously.


What Caused This Sinus Infection?

When the mucous membranes become infected, either by:

  • A cold virus.
  • Bacteria.
  • Allergens.

The resulting sinus infection often leads to a painful attack.

This is how it starts:

The lining swells, blocking the nasal passages, thereby upsetting the pressure balance mentioned above. As a result, bacterium gets trapped behind the blockage and begins to multiply inside the infected sinus cavities located in the skull.

These multiplying bacteria attack the mucous membrane causing it to swell further and to secrete puss... and this causes a pressure build-up inside the cavities.

The resulting pressure causes the skull bone to flex ... and that hurts.

A lot!

Sometimes a vacuum is generated in parts of the passages after blowing your nose and discharging a continuous glob of thick, yellow/green mucus.

Naturally this causes a sudden reversal of pressure and the skull collapses back to its original size. This adds to your misery by causing sudden pain and discomfort until the vacuum is neutralized.

You can tell when this is happening, by detecting a faint high-pitched whistling sound inside your head shortly after blowing your nose.

This gives you temporary relief until the relentless pressure build-up resumes.

With sinusitis, one or more of the paranasal sinuses turn septic.

The result? A dull achy headache that won’t let up, accompanied by a general feeling of malaise and fatigue. 


How Long Will The Sinus Infection Last?

That depends on the type. There are four designations:

  1. Acute sinusitis (sudden onset) - lasts up to 4 weeks.

  2. Subacute sinusitus - infection can last up to 12 weeks.

  3. Chronic sinusitus (long term) - Infection can last longer than the Subacute variety. Attacks can recur for many months or even years, however, they aren't usually as severe as acute sinusitis.

  4. Recurrent sinusitis - Consists of several acute attacks per annum.


Why do we have sinuses?

As mentioned earlier, the paranasal sinuses are made up of four pairs of air filled cavities in the skull.

Mother Nature designed them to help:

  • Insulate the skull.
  • Reduce the weight (without them you’d have difficulty lifting your head).
  • To allow the voice to resonate within the skull (think of concert-hall echo).
  • To provide a "crumple zone" that may save your life if you experience a severe blow to the forehead or face.

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