Sinus Infections and Antibiotics

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A sinus infection (medically called sinusitis) is considered a major health issue that impacts nearly 31 million people in the United States. Those with allergies, weakened immune systems, and sinus blockages are known to have a high risk of sinusitis.

Historically, sinus infections were often treated with antibiotics. But today, many allergists warn against the random use of antibiotics for a sinus infection.

woman with sinus infection
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What Is a Sinus Infection?

The sinuses are cavities (openings) in the head that are filled with air. These air-filled pockets are lined with a very thin layer of mucus that functions to collect particles from the air that are breathed in, such as dust, germs, or other particles.

Very small hair-like projections (called cilia) function to sweep the mucus, along with any particles trapped inside of the mucus. The germ- or dirt-filled mucus then slides down the back of the throat and into the stomach where stomach acid works to kill any germs.

When a sinus infection occurs, this natural process involving mucus flow is blocked.

Symptoms

 Common symptoms of a sinus infection include:

  • Sinus pain around the bridge of the nose or under the eyes
  • Pain in the upper jaw and teeth
  • Headaches around the forehead or temples that worsen in the morning after sinus drainage has collected all night
  • Postnasal drip
  • Nasal discharge that is not clear
  • Nasal congestion
  • Tenderness of the face
  • Coughing (at night after lying down or in the morning)
  • Hoarseness and sore throat
  • Fatigue
  • Halitosis
acute sinusitis symptoms
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Treatment With Antibiotics

There are some circumstances in which antibiotics work to eliminate sinus infections, such as by fighting bacterial sources. But when a sinus infection is caused by allergies, a virus, or other causes such as a structural defect of the sinuses, an antibiotic will not help to alleviate symptoms.

The overuse of antibiotics is when they are prescribed for reasons other than when they are needed. Because of the common overprescribing of antibiotics for the type of sinus infections that do not warrant such treatment, many people have developed what’s commonly referred to as antibiotic resistance.

When Does Antibiotic Resistance Occur?

Antibiotic resistance occurs in a person’s own body and within the community when certain drugs no longer work for a specific type of germ. This can occur when bacteria change in response to exposure to antibiotics so that the antibiotics no longer work efficiently against the bacteria.

Therefore, allergists and other specialists recommend limiting the use of antibiotics unless:

  • Symptoms last over seven to 10 days
  • Specific symptoms are present
  • A fever (which may indicate a bacterial infection) is present

Common Antibiotics for Sinus Infections

Antibiotics may be prescribed when symptoms of a sinus infection warrant such treatment. Common antibiotics for sinus infection include:

  • Augmentin (amoxicillin/clavulanate)
  • Zithromax (azithromycin)
  • Levaquin (levofloxacin): Although this drug is often prescribed as a first line of therapy for sinusitis, it has serious side effects and should only be used as a last resort.
  • Septra (trimethoprim-sulfamethoxazole)
  • Amoxil (amoxicillin)

Over-the-Counter Treatments

There are many over-the-counter (OTC) treatment options for sinus infections, including:

  • Nasal decongestants and antihistamines: There are several combination drugs available over the counter, but be sure to consult with your allergist, pharmacist, or healthcare provider before using these store-bought drugs.
  • Nasal decongestant sprays: These can help open sinuses and relieve symptoms on a short-term basis but should not be used longer than several days. Using a steroid nasal spray such as Nasacort or Flonase may help relieve nasal congestion without causing the rebound effect.
  • Allergy medications: These medications (such as Claritin or Zyrtec) may help when allergies are the underlying cause of sinusitis.
  • Nasal corticosteroid sprays: Nasal corticosteroid sprays aim to help prevent inflammation and swelling in the sinuses and nasal passages. These sprays can also help reduce existing swelling associated with sinus infections. One of the biggest advantages of using this type of nasal spray is that its use does not result in a rebound effect and is safer for long-term use than other types of nasal sprays.

Warning About Decongestants

Note that decongestants can help relieve nasal and sinus congestion but shouldn’t be taken when certain types of medical conditions such as glaucoma or hypertension/high blood pressure are present.

Be sure to consult with your healthcare provider before using any type of OTC medication to treat a sinus headache, particularly if you take any type of medication or you have a medical condition.

Home Remedies

Saline nasal rinses are often used to help flush out thickened mucus and allergens from the nasal passages and to relieve dryness. Studies have shown that effective use of a low-pressure nasal saline rinse with high volume can lead to a rapid and long-term improvement in quality of life for sufferers of long-term sinus infections.

Be sure to consult with your allergist or another healthcare provider before using a saline nasal rinse.

Using the Right Water During Saline Rinses

When using saline nasal rinses, tap water should always be boiled and then allowed to cool to ensure cleanliness; distilled water or premixed solutions could also be used instead of regular tap water.

Other home remedies for sinus infections include:

  • Drinking fluids: Drinking lots of fluids helps loosen and thin mucus. Avoid beverages that are caffeinated (like coffee) and alcoholic beverages that can dehydrate the body, which could thicken mucus.
  • Breathing steam: Warm water is best (not too hot). You can breathe in steam from either a bowl or shower.
  • Humidifying the air: Use a cool air vaporizer or humidifier, particularly at night while sleeping.
  • Avoiding environmental substances: Avoid tobacco smoke and chlorinated water that can dry up the mucus membranes and exacerbate symptoms.
  • Implementing treatment measures: At the first sign of infection, use antihistamines and employ regular nasal rinses.

A Word From Verywell

Although antibiotics are not always warranted for sinus infections, there are some instances in which a person should seek medical care. If you are suffering from symptoms of a sinus infection, you may need to see your healthcare provider.

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Article Sources
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  5. Dehler, J. Allina Health. Ten home remedies to relieve sinus pain and pressure. Updated January 12, 2021.