Acute sinusitis: Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis, Prevention and Treatment


DLHA Staff Writer. Medically reviewed by the DLHA Team



Many people often complain about suffering from acute sinus problem or acute sinusitis. Are you one of them? 

Don’t worry! We've got you covered with reliable health information on what acute sinusitis is, its causes, symptoms, diagnosis, prevention, and treatment.


What is Acute sinusitis?


Acute sinusitis, also referred to in common parlance as “Sinus”, is a short-term inflammation - with or without infection - of the tissue lining the nose and sinuses thereby causing, stuffy nose and swelling of the tissue of the sinuses. The inflammation creates pressure feelings and pain on the cheekbones, forehead, and near the eyes. 


Sinusitis obstructs the nose from draining mucus. Healthy sinuses are air filled cavities located in specific bones of the skull and face. These cavities make the skull and face bone lighter, improve voice resonance and absorb impact from blows or hard knocks to the head. When the sinuses are blocked and filled with fluid, germs grow and cause infection.



Who get acute sinusitis?


Anyone including adult males, females and children may suffer from acute sinusitis. The overall occurrence of the condition across African countries is not known. However, in South Africa, 16 million people – about 30 per cent of the population – suffer from sinusitis yearly. Indeed, it is believed that the rate of occurrence of nasal allergies and sinusitis has doubled and possibly even trebled over the past 20 years in South Africa1.


Causes of Acute sinusitis


Acute Sinusitis starts with a painful runny, and stuffy nose. There might be various reasons and conditions that can cause acute sinusitis. Some are listed below:


• Nasal allergies and irritation from hay fever, dust, pollen animal dander, house dust-mites, cigarette smoke, etc.  

• Viruses and Bacteria

• Fungi

• Tumors growing in nasal passage (nasal polyps

• Deviation in bones of nose (nasal septum)

• Infected adenoids 

• Cystic fibrosis (an inherited genetic disease where thick and sticky mucus builds up)

• An infected tooth can also spread to the sinus, causing bacteria to grow there.

• Systemic disease like diabetes may co-occur with acute sinusitis or indeed be a cause

In children, acute sinusitis can be caused by any of these additional factors like:

• Allergies

• Using unclean pacifiers

• Drink water from the bottle while lying on the back

• Smoke and dust in the environment

• Through illness from other children


Symptoms of Acute sinusitis


Some of the common symptoms of acute sinus include:

• Headache, pressure behind eyes, cheeks, nose or forehead

• Excessive mucus secretion from nose. The mucus may look yellow or green in appearance if infection sets in.

• Low to moderate fever with fatigue,

• Sore throat and hoarse voice

• Bad breath

• Poor sense of smell and taste

• Earache

• Toothache

• Nasal congestion

• Facial swelling and pain

• Discharge from sinus drains back in the throat

People with weakened immunity particularly suffer more from frequent occurrence of acute sinusitis.



Do you have cold, allergies or sinusitis? How to tell the difference


Table comparing the clinical features of the common cold, allergy and sinusitis.

Table comparing the clinical features of the common cold, allergy and sinusitis. Click on the image to enlarge.


  • A simple test such as bending your head forward can help tell if you have sinusitis or common cold. If you feel pressure or pain behind the eyes on performing this test, it’s more likely that you have sinusitis rather than simple cold.
  • General facial pain but particularly when pain caused by pressing on your cheeks, the sides of the bridge of the nose or above your eyes are more suggestive of sinusitis.
  • Headaches that do not go away after taking paracetamol, aspirin, ibuprofen or an unblocking agent – might point to sinusitis.
  • Excessive mucus secretion in the nose and throat, persistent fever, toothache and fatigue from disturbed sleep point towards sinusitis than common cold.



Diagnosis of Acute sinusitis


To diagnose acute sinusitis, your doctor will take a good medical history from you and perform a full or focused physical examination.

Various physical tests may also be conducted by your doctor before treatment commences. These may include:

• Imaging – this may include X-ray or CT scan of the head and face to show the details of sinuses and nasal areas


• Nasal and sinus tissue samples – may be obtained from you and sent for culture or histology in order to determine the cause of the sinusitis such as bacterial infection

• Allergy testing - this helps to detect any allergy that could be the root cause behind acute sinusitis.

• Nasal Endoscopy – The doctor may visually examine the inside of the sinuses. The tool for this test may not be readily available in many doctor’s practice or general hospitals in some African countries.



Duration & Prevention of Acute sinusitis


Acute sinusitis resolves within three to four weeks of basic treatment. In order to prevent or reduce the risk you should adopt the following measures:

• If a smoker, quit smoking as it irritates the nasal cavity and causes infection.

• Identify the allergens you may be prone to.

• Drink water regularly to keep your mucous membranes moist and avoid sinuses

• Take in steam to soothe down the nasal passages

• Avoid blowing your nose with a great force. This may push bacteria into the sinuses

• Periodic nasal washing and clearing will also help in preventing acute sinusitis.



Treatment of Acute sinusitis


Mild cases of acute sinusitis may be treated using simple home remedies or over-the-counter medications. Severe or recurrent cases may call for prescription medications with or without surgery.  


Home remedies

The following home remedies may be tried to treat your mild acute sinusitis

• Using a warm, moist cloth to ease the pain in affected areas.

• Drinking plenty of fluid to keep hydrated at all times.

• Sleeping with your head elevated for proper drainage of the sinus.

• Rinse your nasal cavity regularly to clear your sinuses.

• Use of anti-inflammatory sprays for instant relief from the pain.


Use of non-prescription, over-the-counter medications

The following non-prescription medications may be used to treat mild cases of acute sinusitis:

• Saline nasal spray: Application of saline spray into your nose several times a day will help to rinse the nasal passage

• Decongestants: The use of oral decongestants like pseudoephedrine helps to dry your nose of mucous.

• Nasal corticosteroids: This spray helps to treat inflammation and prevent sinus

• Pain relievers: Such as aspirin, acetaminophen, ibuprofen, etc., helps to relieve sinus pain and headaches.


Prescription treatment

For moderate to severe cases, especially when a bacteria organism is identified as cause, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics therapy.

When allergy is suspected to be the cause of your acute sinus problem, your doctor may prescribe oral antihistamine tablets or nose drops as well as allergy shot to help relieve your symptoms.



Based on your doctor’s determination, surgery may be necessary to treat any underlying cause of your acute sinusitis. The surgery may include:  

  • Removal of nasal polyps or tumors;
  • Correction of a deviation in nasal bone (nasal septum);
  • Draining and cleaning mucous from your sinuses.



  • Acute sinusitis can be caused by a variety of factors and usually lasts a few weeks.
  • Although it may cause pain and discomfort, it is not a life-threatening disease.
  • The symptoms and diagnosis of acute sinusitis are straight forward and are detailed above.
  • Depending on severity and cause, acute sinusitis can be readily treated using home remedies, or non-prescription over the counter medications, or prescribed antibiotics. In some cases, surgery may be necessary.
  • If you experience a high-fever (103 - 104oF) or vision changes due to sinusitis, seek medical attention immediately..
  • Also, maintain a healthy diet to boost your immunity and safeguard yourself from other diseases.




Health24: Managing sinusitis.





Published: December 11, 2019

Reviewed and updated: April 30, 2024

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