Sinus Infection – How and Why You Get a Sinus Attack

You have a common cold, but after a week of dosing yourself, you’ve got a fever and you feel achy and miserable.

On top of that, your head hurts so much, it feels as if it’s about to explode… and to cap it all, you can’t breathe through your nose, your cheeks feel tender and there’s a dull, aching throb in your upper jaw and teeth.

You know it’s probably a sinus infection, but you hope you’re wrong; a friend of yours just came through some rather unpleasant surgery that cost her an arm and a leg.

You make an appointment and drag yourself to your health care provider.

After asking a few questions about your symptoms, she gives you a physical examination and calls for some X-rays. The doctor finally confirms your suspicions by diagnosing acute sinus infection brought about by the common cold.

You mention your friend and she smiles at your concerns, telling you not to worry. Everything looks fine and you probably won’t need specialized treatment, besides very few people ever need surgery for a sinus infection.

She then prescribes some medication and recommends a saline sinus flush using a “Tiki Pot”, and two hot, steamy showers a day in order to loosen the mucous.

What Caused This Attack?

You ask how and why you got infected and, because the doctor is rather busy, she only has time for a brief explanation:

She tells you that your sinus headache is caused by pressure inside the sinus cavities, and then goes into a little more detail:

You have four pairs of cavities located in the skull, called paranasal sinuses.

Each one of these is connected to the others by passages lined with a mucous membrane. The mucous membrane secretes a thin slimy fluid to:

  1. Keep the sinuses moist
  2. To trap airborne dust and pollutants
  3. To help keep bacteria from invading the sinus cavities.

Specialized tiny hairs called cilia grow through the mucous membrane; these continually sweep back and forth and are designed to trap airborne dirt, bacteria and mucous and then to propel it outward via tubes called the osteomeatal complex (OMC).

The OMC itself is connected to nasal passages in order to:

  • Maintain a pressure balance between the sinuses and the outside air.
  • Allow mucous waste to drain out through the nose.
  • Provide an exit point for unwanted dirt and bacteria.

Healthy sinuses are filled with air and a small amount of thin mucous that drains away continuously.

When the mucous membranes become infected by a cold virus, it sometimes causes a sinus infection. The lining swells, blocking the nasal passages and upsetting the pressure balance mentioned above. As a result, bacterium gets trapped behind the blockage and begins to multiply inside the infected sinuses.

These multiplying bacteria attack the mucus membrane causing it to secrete puss… and this causes a pressure build-up inside the cavities located in the walls of the skull.

The resulting pressure causes the skull bone to flex… and that really hurts… a lot!

With sinusitis, one or more of the paranasal sinuses turn septic.

The result? A dull achy headache that won’t let up, accompanied by a general feeling of malaise and fatigue.

How Long will a Sinus Attack Last?

That depends on the type of infection. There are four designations:

  1. Acute sinusitis (sudden onset) — lasts up to 4 weeks.
  2. Subacute sinus infection can last up to 12 weeks.
  3. Chronic sinus (long term) infection lasts longer than Subacute. Occurrences can continue for many months or even years, but they aren’t as severe as acute sinus.
  4. Recurrent sinusitis consists of several acute attacks per annum.

What are Sinuses?

As mentioned earlier, the paranasal sinuses are made up of four pairs of air filled cavities in the skull – two on the left and two on the right.

Mother Nature designed them to help:

  • Insulate the skull.
  • Reduce the weight (without them you’d have difficulty lifting your head).
  • To allow the voice to resonate within the skull (think of concert-hall echo).

The names and locations of these cavities are:

  1. Frontal sinuses located over the eyes in the forehead
  2. Maxillary sinuses inside each cheekbone
  3. Ethmoid sinuses behind the bridge of the nose and between the eyes
  4. Sphenoid sinuses behind the upper region of the nose and spreading behind both eyes

The doctor leans back and smiles, “Any questions?”

You shake your head and tell her “No… thanks a lot for the info.”

Feeling a little better, you drag yourself off, and stop at the local pharmacy on your way home.

Three or four days later you’re fit enough to return to work.