Chronic sinusitis is a persisting inflammatory condition of one or more sinuses. It is less common than acute sinusitis but appears to be getting more common in all age groups. Various treatments may be tried. Surgery to improve the drainage of the sinus is an option if other treatments fail, and usually works well.
What is chronic sinusitis?
Chronic sinusitis means that a sinusitis becomes persistent and lasts for longer than 12 weeks. Chronic sinusitis is common, affecting in 1 in 10 adults in the UK.. Most cases of chronic sinusitis develop following an acute sinusitis infection. Most cases of acute sinusitis go away within 2-3 weeks, often much sooner. In some cases the symptoms do not go and become persistent (chronic).
How do you get chronic sinusitis?
You are more likely to get chronic sinusitis if you are older, female, a smoker, or suffer from conditions like asthma and allergies. The following are causes of acute sinusitis that may progress into a chronic sinusitis include:
Cold or flu-like illnesses
In most cases, acute sinusitis develops from a cold or flu-like illness. Colds and flu are caused by germs called viruses which may spread to the sinuses. The infection may remain viral before clearing, causing a viral sinus infection. In a small number of cases, germs called bacteria add on to an infection that started with a virus. This can cause a bacterial sinus infection which can make the infection worse, can last longer and may cause more damage or changes to the lining of the sinus.
In some cases, infection spreads to a cheekbone (maxillary) sinus from an infected tooth.
Other risk factors for sinus infection
In a few people, one or more factors are present that may cause their sinuses to be more prone to infection and developing chronic sinusitis. Acute sinusitis may be more likely to progress into chronic sinusitis as there is an underlying problem, such as a poor immune system (immune suppression).
If you develop chronic sinusitis after an acute sinus infection, you may continue to get symptoms even though the infection has gone. (This is why treating chronic sinusitis with antibiotics does not often work.) After being initially triggered by an infection, the persisting symptoms may be due to a combination of factors. For example:
- Poor drainage of the affected sinus (blocked sinus) - the sinus drainage channel may become fully or partially blocked.
- A build-up of mucus in the sinus.
- Inflammatory changes to the lining of the sinus that result from infection.
- A flare-up of infection from time to time as a result of these changes.
Sometimes, a persisting allergy can cause inflammation in a sinus and swelling or blockage of the drainage channel.
Chronic sinusitis symptoms
The most prominent symptom is usually a blocked nose (nasal obstruction). One or more of the following may also occur:
- A runny nose. The discharge may be green/yellow.
- A blocked or congested nose.
- A reduced sense of smell.
- Pain or a pressure feeling over the affected sinus or a headache.
The severity of your symptoms may wax and wane. They may be worst during an initial acute sinusitis. They may then ease off and not be as severe, leaving a background level of symptoms. (For example, you may just have nasal stuffiness rather than a fully blocked nose, as well as some mild facial discomfort.) You may then develop another episode of acute sinusitis making your symptoms worse again. For a diagnosis of chronic sinusitis, symptoms must have been present for longer than 12 weeks.
All other symptoms are shared with acute sinusitis - please see our Acute Sinusitis leaflet for details.
What tests are used for chronic sinusitis?
Your doctor can usually diagnose chronic sinusitis based on your symptoms. They may ask questions to determine if there could be an underlying problem causing your chronic sinusitis. For example, asthma, nasal allergy (allergic rhinitis), chronic dental infection, etc. Your doctor may also examine your nose to check for any obvious abnormalities or deviation of the bones in your nose and to look for any other problems, such as growths (nasal polyps).
If you develop chronic sinusitis that is not easy to treat with straightforward measures, your doctor may suggest that you be referred to an Ear, Nose and Throat specialist. The specialist may do various tests to see if there is an underlying cause which makes you more prone to develop sinusitis (mentioned above). For example, a scan of the sinuses or a detailed look into the nasal passage.
Chronic sinusitis treatment
Can chronic sinusitis go away on its own?
This is unlikely. Most people who have had sinus problems for more than 12 weeks have an underlying cause which will need treatment.
How long does it take for chronic sinusitis to go away?
This depends on the underlying cause of chronic sinusitis. For example, people with blocked sinus drainage channels may improve rapidly after surgery, whereas those with a fungal infection may need lengthy courses of antifungal medicines before they notice any improvement.
How do you treat chronic sinusitis without antibiotics?
Antibiotics may only be helpful if the cause for chronic sinusitis is a bacterial infection. Identifying and treating the underlying cause (eg, an allergy) is required, and avoiding things that make your symptoms worse. Steroid sprays and tablets may sometimes be helpful. The self-help options outlined below do not involve antibiotics (see 'Medical treatments', below).
Treatment of any underlying problem
If you have an underlying problem that may have caused or contributed to your chronic sinusitis, treating this will usually help your symptoms. For example, this may mean treatment for nasal allergy (allergic rhinitis), treatment of a dental infection, treatment of asthma, treatment of a fungal infection, etc.
There are a number of different treatments for allergy, including tablets and immunotherapy. See also the leaflet on Persistent Rhinitis.
It is very important to reduce the risk of spreading any germ. Germs are easily spread, including by hand contact. Therefore it is important to wash your hands regularly.
Avoidance of things that may make your symptoms worse
If you have chronic sinusitis and you are a smoker, you may find that if you stop smoking your symptoms improve. This may especially be the case if you have allergies as well. You should also practise good dental hygiene if you are prone to chronic sinusitis, as it can be caused by a dental infection.
Scuba divers with nasal or sinus problems should be aware of the possible serious consequences of sinus barotrauma. (This is damage to your sinuses resulting from pressure differences when diving.) Recurrent barotrauma to sinuses can cause knock-on complications, such as serious infection and damage to nerves in the face and eye. If you have had chronic sinusitis and wish to dive, you should seek advice from your doctor.
Flying in an aeroplane may cause an increase in pain if there is blockage of the sinus drainage channel. With the change in air pressure in an aeroplane, the pressure does not equalise between the sinus and outside, due to the blockage. Pain tends to be worse when the aeroplane is descending to land.
The sort of medicines that may be considered include the following:
- Nasal saline irrigation (eg, NeilMed®) which can be bought in a pharmacy).
- Steroids applied to the nasal lining using sprays ( such as beclometasone nasal spray) or drops are recommended for all types of chronic sinusitis. This is because they help to reduce inflammation. A long course may be advised - for example, for three months. Occasionally, if symptoms are severe, a course of steroid tablets by mouth may be suggested. However, these are more likely to produce side-effects. See the separate leaflet called Oral Steroids for more details.
- Prolonged courses of antibiotics (3-4 weeks) are sometimes helpful but are best prescribed after full assessment by an Ear, Nose and Throat specialist.
- Antifungal medicines are needed if you have a fungal infection of a sinus (this is rare).
- Antihistamines may be recommended if your doctor thinks that allergy is contributing to your sinusitis symptoms.
If you have a flare-up of more acute sinusitis symptoms on top of your background symptoms, one or more of the following may be helpful:
- Painkillers, such as paracetamol or ibuprofen, will usually ease any pain. Sometimes stronger painkillers, such as codeine, are needed for a short time.
- Decongestant nasal sprays or drops or tablets are sometimes used. You can buy these from pharmacies. They may briefly relieve a blocked nose. You should not use a decongestant spray or drops for more than 5-7 days at a time. If they are used for longer than this, they may cause a worse rebound congestion in the nose.
- Home remedies such as warm face packs held over the sinuses may help to ease pain.
- A saline nasal solution or a neti pot may help to relieve congestion and blockage within the nose.
- A short course of antibiotics may sometimes be advised by your doctor if they suspect germs (bacteria) have caused an infection.
The best treatment for chronic sinusitis varies from person to person. Surgery is used mainly if the condition does not improve with medical treatments. The main purpose of surgery is to improve the drainage of the affected sinus.
The most common operation is called functional endoscopic sinus surgery (FESS). This involves a surgeon inserting an endoscope into the nose. The endoscope used for this procedure is a thin rigid instrument that contains lenses. The endoscope allows a detailed magnified view of inside the nose. The surgeon can see the opening of the sinus drainage channels. He or she can then remove any tissues that are blocking the drainage of the affected sinus. This can improve sinus drainage and ventilation and help to restore normal function to the sinus. This operation causes little damage (is minimally invasive). It usually has a high success rate in relieving symptoms of chronic sinusitis.
A more recently developed operation is called balloon catheter dilation of paranasal sinus ostia. This involves a surgeon pushing a small balloon through a flexible tube in the nostril, into the blocked sinus. The balloon is inflated which pushes wide the blocked area. The balloon is then deflated and removed. Following this procedure there is a good chance that the sinus drainage channel is widened and the sinus can drain properly.
Surgery may also sometimes be needed to remove nasal growths (polyps) or to correct problems with deviated bones inside the nose.
How dangerous is sinus surgery?
Sinus surgery is a relatively safe procedure, but all operations carry a risk. Rare complications of sinus surgery include infection and bleeding.
Can surgery cure chronic sinusitis?
Doctors are reluctant to talk about cures because this implies a guarantee that the condition will completely go away and never come back after treatment. Instead, scientific studies concentrate on 'outcome'measures'. These studies focus particularly on symptoms and whether or not they improve after treatment. In the case of chronic sinusitis, for example, such symptoms would include sense of smell, nasal obstruction and any associated condition such as asthma. In one large study, 8 out of 10 people said their symptoms improved after sinus surgery.
Is chronic sinusitis dangerous?
Living with untreated chronic sinusitis can be unpleasant with persistent symptoms but serious complications are uncommon. A sinus infection may (rarely) spread to nearby areas, such as around an eye, into adjoining bones, into the blood, or into the brain. Children are more prone than adults are to complications. Swelling or redness of an eyelid or cheek in a child with sinusitis should be reported to a doctor urgently.
Can you die from chronic sinusitis?
You cannot die from chronic sinusitis itself. However, complications of chronic sinusitis - such as spread of the infection to the brain causing meningitis - can be fatal. It is rare for such a situation to develop.
Can chronic sinusitis cause cancer?
Chronic sinusitis cannot cause cancer. However, cancer can develop in a sinus and early symptoms can mimic those of chronic sinusitis.
Further reading and references
Guidelines for the management of rhinosinusitis and nasal polyposis; British Society for Allergy and Clinical Immunology (2007)
Balloon catheter dilation of paranasal sinus ostia for chronic sinusitis; NICE Interventional Procedure Guidance, September 2008
Rimmer J, Fokkens W, Chong LY, et al; Surgical versus medical interventions for chronic rhinosinusitis with nasal polyps. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2014(12):CD006991. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD006991.pub2. Epub 2014 Dec 1.
Husain S, Amilia HH, Rosli MN, et al; Management of rhinosinusitis in adults in primary care. Malays Fam Physician. 2018 Apr 3013(1):28-33. eCollection 2018.
Sinusitis; NICE CKS, March 2021 (UK access only)