Recurrent Sinus Infections and COPD

Man with sinusitis
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People with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) will commonly report sinus infections (sinusitis) in tandem with their typical respiratory symptoms. It's a frustrating issue and one that complicates a disease that may already be difficult to manage.

Worse yet, the severity of sinus problems tends to match those of COPD, worsening step-for-step as the respiratory disease progresses.

How Sinusitis and COPD Are Linked

Current research suggests that as many as 75 percent of people living with COPD have a co-existing nasal condition. On the flip side, roughly a third of people with chronic sinusitis are believed to have lower airway problems related to either COPD or asthma.

Because the inflammatory response is similar in both the upper and lower airways, it is not surprising that the exposure to certain irritants can trigger symptoms in both the lungs and the sinuses. Many refer to this as the nasal-bronchial effect in which both systems react at the same time (or to each other) but with a slightly different range of symptoms.

In addition, people with chronic sinusitis tend to have a condition known as nonspecific bronchial hyperresponsiveness (NBH). This is when the passages in the lung will constrict and narrow to any number of triggers. As this is a central feature of COPD, some have proposed that any bronchial constriction may trigger a nasal reflex or vice versa.

Symptoms of Sinusitis

There are four major parts of the sinuses: the frontal sinuses in the forehead, the maxillary sinuses behind the cheekbones, the ethmoid sinuses behind the eyes, and the sphenoid sinuses, also behind the eyes.

Symptoms of sinusitis are largely dependant on which part of the sinuses is affected and may include:

  • Headaches
  • Post-nasal drip
  • Nasal congestion
  • Fever
  • Sore throat
  • Nasal discharge
  • Production of phlegm
  • Fatigue and lethargy
  • Nasal pain or pressure

While these sorts of symptoms are familiar to most of us, they are especially problematic for people with COPD.

As a disease characterized by the progressive deterioration in respiratory function, COPD cannot help but suffer under the additional burden of sinusitis. Where congestion and breathing difficulties may be considered bothersome for the average person with sinusitis, the very same symptoms can trigger serious exacerbations in persons living with COPD.

As such, the control of sinus symptoms not only improves a person's quality of life, it can prevent the deterioration of lung function and slow the progression of the disease.

Self-Care of Sinusitis

If you have COPD, your doctor is likely to prescribe medications to treat your sinus infections, including antibiotics, oral decongestants, or nasal sprays. You should take these as indicated, particularly if you are prone to sinus infection or suffer seasonal allergies.

At the same time, there are things you can do at home to treat sinusitis and avoid the worsening of symptoms:

  • Use a humidifier to reduce any irritants or allergens circulating in the air.
  • Drink plenty of water.
  • Take an oral antihistamine if you have symptoms of allergy.
  • Use an over-the-counter expectorant to help clear out any phlegm.
  • Irrigate your nasal passages with a neti-pot.
  • Stop smoking (something you should do anyway if you have COPD).
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Article Sources

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  1. Kim JS, Rubin BK. Nasal and sinus inflammation in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. COPD. 2007;4(2):163-6. doi:10.1080/15412550701341228

  2. American College of Asthma, Allergy & Immunology. Sinus infection.

  3. Håkansson K, Konge L, Thomsen SF, Backer V, Von buchwald C. Sinonasal inflammation in COPD: a systematic review. Eur Respir J. 2013;42(5):1402-11. doi:10.1183/09031936.00119712

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