Sinusitis (sinus infection)

Sinusitis is swelling of the sinuses, usually caused by an infection. It’s common and usually clears up on its own within 2 to 3 weeks. In some cases it lasts a long time.

Check if you have sinusitis

Sinusitis is common after a cold or flu.

Symptoms of sinusitis include:

  • pain and tenderness around your cheeks, eyes or forehead
  • a blocked nose
  • reduced sense of smell
  • green or yellow mucus from your nose
  • a sinus headache
  • a high temperature of 38C or above
  • toothache
  • bad breath

Signs of sinusitis in young children may also include irritability, difficulty feeding and breathing through their mouth.

What are the sinuses?

The sinuses are small, empty spaces behind your cheekbones and forehead that connect to the inside of the nose.

Sinusitis causes the lining of the sinuses to swell up. This stops mucus draining into your nose and throat properly, making you feel blocked up.

How you can treat sinusitis yourself

You can often treat mild sinusitis without seeing your GP.

To relieve sinus pain, take painkillers such as paracetamol or ibuprofen. Don’t give aspirin to children under 16.

You can also relieve sinus pain by:

  1. soaking a clean flannel in warm water
  2. holding it against your forehead and cheeks for 5 to 10 minutes
  3. repeating this 3 or 4 times a day

To help unblock your nose, try regularly cleaning the inside of your nose with a salt water solution.

How to clean your nose with a salt water solution
  1. Boil a pint of water then leave it to cool
  2. Mix a teaspoon of salt and a teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda into the water
  3. Wash your hands
  4. Stand over a sink, cup the palm of one hand and pour a small amount of the solution into it
  5. Sniff the water into one nostril at a time
  6. Repeat these steps until your nose feels more comfortable

You don’t need to use all of the solution, but use a fresh one each day.

Your pharmacist can help with sinusitis

Your pharmacist can recommend a decongestant nasal spray, tablets or drops to help unblock your nose and allow you to breathe more easily. You can buy these without a prescription, but they shouldn’t be used for more than a week.

Some decongestant tablets contain paracetamol or ibuprofen. Be careful not to take more than the recommended dose.

Some pharmacies also sell sachets you can use to make a salt water solution and devices to help rinse your nose.

See a GP if:

  • your symptoms are severe or getting worse
  • your sinus symptoms don’t improve after 7 to 10 days
  • you keep getting sinusitis

Book a GP appointment online

Treatment from a GP

Your GP may prescribe a steroid nasal spray or drops to reduce the swelling in your sinuses.

You might need to take these for a few months and they sometimes cause irritation, sore throats or nosebleeds.

Your GP may prescribe antibiotics for a bacterial infection. However, sinusitis is usually caused by a cold or flu virus.

Your GP may refer you to an ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist if:

  • other treatments haven’t helped
  • you’ve had sinusitis for longer than 3 months (chronic sinusitis)

In some cases, you might be offered surgery.

Surgery for sinusitis

Surgery to treat chronic sinusitis is called functional endoscopic sinus surgery (FESS).

FESS is carried out under general anaesthetic (where you’re asleep).

The surgeon can widen your sinuses by either:

  • removing some of the blocked skin tissue
  • inflating a tiny balloon in the blocked sinuses, then removing it

You should be able to have FESS within 18 weeks of your GP appointment.

The ENT UK website has more information about FESS.

Call 111

If you can’t speak to your GP or don’t know what to do next.