Sinus infections are never pleasant. What starts as a runny nose soon leads to facial pain and a sore throat that consumes all your attention. Then, in addition to these symptoms you are experiencing, there is always a concern about passing the infection along to someone else.
Most sinus infections result from a viral infection, and these are also the only types of sinus infections that are contagious. Just like other viruses, the one that leads to a sinus infection can be spread when coughing or sneezing, so it is always best to cover your mouth when doing either of these actions. Additionally, wash your hands if you do sneeze or cough into them. You alone know how unpleasant your sinus infection is, so it is essential to do your part to prevent it from infecting someone else.
Table of Contents
- What Is a Sinus Infection?
- Sinus Infection Symptoms
- What Causes Sinus Infections?
- Are Sinus Infections Contagious?
- How to Treat Sinus Infections?
- When to See a Doctor?
- Key Takeaways
What Is a Sinus Infection?
A sinus infection, also known as sinusitis, occurs when fluid builds up in the sinuses, which are air-filled pockets in the face. When this fluid builds up, it creates a space for germs to grow.
The sinuses are hollow cavities in the cheeks located behind the nose, on either side and in the forehead. Typically, they are filled with air and surrounded by a thin layer of mucus.
Sinus Infection Symptoms
Those with a sinus infection may experience some of the following symptoms:
- stuffy nose
- runny nose
- sore throat
- facial pressure or pain
- post-nasal drip
- bad breath
Sinus infections that are due to bacteria may also have pus-like or thick nasal discharge.
What Causes Sinus Infections?
The sinuses are lined in a thin layer of mucus which traps germs, dust, and other particles. Tiny hair-like projections then sweep the mucus and whatever it has trapped through an opening to the back of the throat, where it then slides into the stomach.
A sinus infection occurs when the mucus cannot be cleared to the back of the throat and becomes trapped in the sinuses. This can occur because of a virus, bacterial infection, or allergies causing the nasal tissues to swell.
Some factors may increase your risk of getting a sinus infection, such as:
- seasonal allergies
- a previous cold
- structural problems with the sinuses (e.g., nasal polyps)
- smoking or exposure to secondhand smoke
- a weak immune system
Are Sinus Infections Contagious?
Some sinus infections are contagious, but not all. Whether or not a sinus infection is contagious depends on its cause. For example, if the sinus infection is due to a virus, it is contagious. However, sinus infections from allergies or a deformity in the nasal passages are not contagious.
Additionally, in the case of a viral sinus infection, what is contagious is the virus, not the sinus infection itself. However, those who become infected by the virus are at an increased risk of also developing a sinus infection.
How Contagious Are Sinus Infections?
Viral sinus infections are the only type that are contagious, but they are also the most common.
These types of infections are relatively contagious, especially when those who are sick do not properly cover their coughs and sneezes and wash their hands.
How Long Are Sinus Infections Contagious?
In general, you are considered contagious as long as you have symptoms. Since a sinus infection due to a virus often lasts between 7 and 10 days, you are typically contagious during this time. Additionally, you may be contagious before you start to display symptoms.
Some people may wonder if they are contagious while taking antibiotics for a sinus infection, but the only time antibiotics are used for a sinus infection is if the doctor suspects that bacteria are the cause, and these sinus infections are never contagious.
How Do Sinus Infections Spread?
The only way that a sinus infection will spread is if the cause behind it is viral. In these cases, when someone coughs or sneezes, the virus causing the infection can become airborne. If you then breathe in the virus, you can become infected.
Additionally, if someone with a sinus infection coughs or sneezes into their hands and then touches you, you can also become infected in this way. This is why it is recommended to cough or sneeze into the crook of your elbow and wash your hands regularly when sick to prevent transmission.
How to Treat Sinus Infections?
Most sinus infections get better on their own, without the need for antibiotics.
However, there are some at-home remedies that can help relieve the symptoms of a sinus infection while the body works on clearing away the infection.
Applying a warm compress over the nose and forehead can help to relieve sinus pressure, easing any facial pain or headaches.
Breathe in Steam
Breathing in the steam from a shower or a bowl of hot water can help to open up the nasal passages, which can relieve congestion and ease sinus pain.
Some over-the-counter (OTC) medication options for sinus infections include decongestants (to lessen the amount of mucus produced) and acetaminophen (to reduce pain from the swollen nasal passages).
If your sinus infection is due to allergies, taking OTC antihistamines can help to relieve sinus pressure while also preventing future incidences of sinusitis.
Nasal irrigation can help many people with a sinus infection due to its ability to remove excess mucus, which then opens the airway passages.
One of the best things you can do for your body when sick is rest. Your immune system works overtime when you are sick, and resting your body ensures that it can continue working optimally, helping you get better faster.
When to See a Doctor?
Most sinus infections will go away on their own. However, be sure to see a doctor if any of the following are true:
- symptoms get worse after improving
- severe symptoms (e.g., severe facial pain or headache)
- fever lasting longer than 3-4 days
- symptoms lasting more than 10 days without getting better
Additionally, it is recommended to visit a doctor if you have had multiple sinus infections within the past year.
If you have had a sinus infection for longer than a week, your doctor may wish to prescribe antibiotics at this point. However, not all sinus infections are caused by bacteria, so having a sinus infection for more than a week does not immediately indicate a need for antibiotics.
Get Help From an Online Doctor
For those with a sinus infection, visiting an online doctor is an excellent way to discuss symptoms and determine if antibiotics are needed to treat the infection. With DrHouse, you can meet with a doctor in just 15 minutes, and all our board-certified doctors are qualified to write a prescription.
Sinus infections occur when the sinuses become filled with fluid, which creates a breeding ground for germs. Most sinus infections are due to a virus, but bacteria, allergies, and nasal blockages can also cause them.
While sinus infections themselves are not contagious, the virus causing them is. Because of this, it is essential to follow proper hygiene to prevent the spread of the virus. For those with a sinus infection due to bacteria, they are not contagious.
In general, your sinus infection is contagious for as long as you have symptoms, which can be up to 2 weeks. To help with your recovery process, there are many at-home remedies, such as breathing in steam, using warm compresses, and taking OTC medicine. If your sinus infection lasts for longer than 10 days, or if you have a fever for 3-4 days, it is recommended to visit a doctor. An online doctor is a great resource to discuss the cause of your sinus infection and receive an antibiotic prescription if needed.
- Antibiotic Prescribing and Use: Sinus Infection (Sinusitis). (2019). https://www.cdc.gov/antibiotic-use/sinus-infection.html
- Ah-See, K., & Evans, A. (2007). Sinusitis and its management. BMJ, 334(7589), 358-361. doi: https://www.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.39092.679722.be
- Dykewicz, M., & Hamilos, D. (2010). Rhinitis and sinusitis. Journal Of Allergy And Clinical Immunology, 125(2), S103-S115. doi: https://www.doi.org/10.1016/j.jaci.2009.12.989
- Rosenfeld, R., Piccirillo, J., Chandrasekhar, S., Brook, I., Ashok Kumar, K., & Kramper, M. et al. (2015). Clinical Practice Guideline (Update): Adult Sinusitis. Otolaryngology–Head And Neck Surgery, 152(2_suppl), S1-S39. doi: https://www.doi.org/10.1177/0194599815572097
- DeMuri GP, Wald ER. Sinusitis. In: Bennett JE, Dolin R, Blaser MJ, eds. Mandell, Douglas, and Bennett’s Principles and Practice of Infectious Diseases. 9th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2020:chap 62.
- Pappas DE, Hendley JO. Sinusitis. In: Kliegman RM, St. Geme JW, Blum NJ, Shah SS, Tasker RC, Wilson KM, eds. Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics. 21st ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2020:chap 408.