Daniel L Hamilos, MD
Jonathan Corren, MD
Constanza Villalba, PhD
Anna M Feldweg, MD
CHRONIC SINUSITIS OVERVIEW — The sinuses are hollow air pockets in the bones of the face and head that probably exist to cushion the brain during trauma (figure 1). The sinuses are lined with a thin layer of tissue that normally makes a small amount of mucus to keep the sinuses healthy and lubricated and flush away germs.
Sinusitis, also called rhinosinusitis, occurs when the lining of the sinuses gets infected or irritated, become swollen, and create extra mucus. The swollen lining may also interfere with drainage of mucus.
Chronic sinusitis refers to a condition that lasts at least 12 weeks despite being treated and causes at least TWO of the following symptoms:
- Nasal congestion
- Mucus discharge from the nose or that drips down the back of the throat
- Facial pain, pressure, or “fullness”
- A decreased sense of smell
Chronic sinusitis is different from the more common form of sinusitis (called acute sinusitis), which is a temporary infection of the sinuses that often occurs following colds. Chronic sinusitis is a more persistent problem that requires a specific treatment approach. It is sometimes overlooked by both patients and healthcare providers because the symptoms are more low-grade and chronic.
If you have been treated for sinusitis with antibiotics multiple times within a single year, or if you have two or more of the symptoms listed above much of the year, talk to your healthcare provider about whether you might have chronic sinusitis.
An article that discusses acute sinusitis is available separately. (See “Patient information: Acute sinusitis (sinus infection)”.)
CHRONIC SINUSITIS CAUSES — Unlike acute sinusitis, which is usually caused by infection, chronic sinusitis often has more complicated and elusive causes. Infections can certainly contribute to or worsen chronic sinusitis, but people with the chronic condition usually have longstanding inflammation that cannot be explained by infection alone. (See “Clinical manifestations, pathophysiology, and diagnosis of chronic rhinosinusitis”.)
Healthcare provides divide chronic sinusitis into three different categories, depending upon the features that are present.
- Chronic sinusitis without polyps — Chronic sinusitis without polyps is the most common type of sinusitis. In this form of chronic sinusitis, the swelling and irritation of the sinus lining may be caused by different factors, such as allergies to things in the air, irritation from things in the air, and infections (figure 2). The factors are different in different people.
- Chronic sinusitis with polyps — Some people with chronic sinusitis have abnormal growths inside their nose or sinuses called nasal polyps. The polyps can become large and numerous enough to clog the sinuses, causing symptoms (figure 3). Scientists do not fully understand why some people form nasal polyps. Treatment involves medications to shrink the polyps or surgery to remove them. Some people need both.
- Chronic sinusitis with fungal allergy — Some people with chronic sinusitis develop a strong allergic response to fungi (plural of fungus) inside their sinuses. It is normal for air to contain small amounts of fungi, and most people can breathe in air containing fungi without problems. However, in some people, the allergy to fungi causes the sinus lining to make thick, dense mucus that fills the sinuses. To diagnose this type of chronic sinusitis, a healthcare provider must find thick mucus in the sinuses, see fungi in the mucus under the microscope, and show (with allergy testing) that you are allergic to fungi.
CHRONIC SINUSITIS RISK FACTORS — Several factors can increase your risk of chronic sinusitis or worsen its symptoms once you have the disorder. These include:
- Allergies — Allergies are much more common among people with chronic sinusitis than they are among people in the general population. This is especially true of allergies that are present year-round, such as dust mites, animal dander, molds, and cockroaches. What’s more, allergies that are poorly controlled can worsen the symptoms of chronic sinusitis. (See “Patient information: Allergic rhinitis (seasonal allergies)”.)
- Exposure to airborne irritants or tobacco smoke — Exposure to cigarette smoke or certain environmental toxins, such as formaldehyde, can increase the risk of chronic sinusitis.
- Immune system disorders — People who have certain immune system problems are at increased risk of chronic sinusitis. Most people with immune problems also have recurrent problems with other infections, such as ear and chest infections.
- Viral infections — Some people seem to develop chronic sinusitis after having repeated viral infections (such as the common cold), although it is not clear that the infections actually cause the chronic sinusitis or if the same people are simply prone to both problems.
- Deviated septum — The piece of cartilage that runs down the midline of the nose and separates the nostrils, called the septum, is not entirely straight in many people — a condition called a deviated septum. This may be present from birth, or develop later in life as the result of injury to the nose. A deviated septum may cause one nostril to be blocked, but it usually does not cause chronic sinusitis.
CHRONIC SINUSITIS SYMPTOMS — As noted above, the symptoms of chronic sinusitis must include two or more of the following:
- Nasal congestion
- Mucous discharge from the nose or that drips into the back of the throat
- Facial pain, pressure, or “fullness”
- A decreased sense of smell (which is especially common among people who have polyps)
Many people with chronic sinusitis also experience fatigue, although this symptom is not used to diagnose chronic sinusitis because there are so many other causes of fatigue, unrelated to sinus conditions. Still, fatigue is a prominent feature of chronic sinusitis, and it can be the most difficult symptom for some people to manage.
CHRONIC SINUSITIS DIAGNOSIS — Chronic sinusitis is likely if a person has had two or more of the symptoms listed above, for a period of at least 3 months. In addition, there should be evidence of sinus disease that can be seen on a sinus CT scan or with a procedure called sinus endoscopy.
A sinus CT scan is a procedure that takes about 15 minutes and involves a series of x-rays of the head and face. The x-rays give a detailed picture of the sinus linings and any mucus or polyps within the sinus spaces.
Sinus endoscopy is an office procedure in which a physician uses a thin tube attached to a camera to see inside the sinuses (figure 4). Endoscopy also allows the physician to take a sample of mucus from inside the sinuses to examine under the microscope. Samples of mucus from the nose (which would be easy to obtain) are not representative of what is found in the sinuses.
CONDITIONS RELATED TO CHRONIC SINUSITIS — The linings of the nose and sinuses are similar to the linings of the lungs. About one in five people with chronic sinusitis also has asthma. The people most likely to have asthma are those who have chronic sinusitis and nasal polyps.
Some patients with chronic sinusitis, nasal polyps, and asthma also have a condition called aspirin intolerance. The symptoms of aspirin intolerance consist of a noticeable worsening in nasal or chest symptoms in the first few hours after taking aspirin, ibuprofen, naproxen sodium, or other nonsteroidal antiinflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) for pain and fever.
Worsened symptoms may involve sudden nasal congestion, pain and pressure in the sinuses, wheezing, chest tightness, and cough. These reactions can be severe and even life-threatening. In contrast, acetaminophen (Tylenol®) usually does not aggravate sinus and asthma symptoms. If you think you may have aspirin intolerance, you should avoid aspirin and other similar medications and talk to your healthcare provider. (See “Aspirin exacerbated respiratory disease”.)
CHRONIC SINUSITIS TREATMENT — Chronic sinusitis cannot be cured in most cases, but proper treatment can significantly reduce its symptoms and improve quality of life. Treatment can also reduce the need for repeated rounds of antibiotics and/or repeat surgery.
Unfortunately, people with chronic sinusitis usually need lifelong treatment to keep the symptoms in check. Several treatment options are available for people with chronic sinusitis, but not all treatments are appropriate for all people. Different combinations of these treatments will be recommended depending upon the type of chronic sinusitis you have, the severity of your symptoms, and if other conditions are also at play (such as allergies or asthma).
Healthcare providers usually recommend starting with aggressive treatment to get symptoms and inflammation under control, and then changing to a less aggressive approach over time. (See “Medical management of chronic rhinosinusitis”.)
Potential treatments for chronic sinusitis include:
Life style modifications — People with chronic sinusitis who smoke cigarettes should stop. (See “Patient information: Quitting smoking”.)
If you have allergies as a contributing factor to chronic sinusitis, you may be able to change things in your home or work conditions to reduce your exposure to the specific allergens that bother them. (See “Patient information: Trigger avoidance in allergic rhinitis”.)
Daily nasal washing — Most people with chronic sinusitis find that washing their nasal passages daily with saline (salt water) helps reduce symptoms. Washing the nose before applying medications also clears away mucus and reduces its interference with medications. The table provides instructions on how to make your own saline and perform nasal washes (table 1).
Glucocorticoid nasal sprays, washes, and drops — Because all forms of chronic sinusitis involve some degree of inflammation (ie, irritation and swelling), most people with the condition need medications to reduce inflammation.
Glucocorticoids (commonly called steroids) are very effective anti-inflammatory drugs. They also decrease mucus production and help shrink any polyps that may be present. Using glucocorticoids in form of nasal sprays or drops has the advantage of putting the medicine right where it is needed, and also of not treating the rest of the body, where the drug is not needed.
Your healthcare provider will probably ask you to try a glucocorticoid spray initially, as sprays are easy to use. Sprays do not reach deep into the sinus cavities, but they reduce swelling in the nasal passages and open up the areas through which the sinuses drain. Examples of steroid sprays include triamcinolone acetonide (Nasacort®), budesonide (Rhinocort Aqua®) and fluticasone (Veramyst®).
If the sprays do not seem to be working well enough, your provider may suggest switching to nasal drops, or adding a nasal glucocorticoid solution to the saline nasal wash. Nasal drops or washes help get the glucocorticoid solution higher up into the sinuses.
If drops are prescribed, then you must put them into the nose while lying in specific positions. This allows the liquid to move into the different sinuses (figure 5). In the US, steroids do not come in nasal drops, but a medication called budesonide (Pulmicort® Respules) can dissolved in saline to use as nasal drops. Your healthcare provider will give you specific instructions on how to use these medications.
Glucocorticoid pills — In some cases, your healthcare provider will recommend taking glucocorticoids (steroids) by mouth (orally). The most commonly used oral glucocorticoid is prednisone.
Glucocorticoids taken orally get into the circulation and deliver higher doses of drug compared to nasal sprays, rinses, or drops. This can result in better treatment of the inflammation and more dramatic improvement in symptoms. However, glucocorticoids taken by mouth suppress normal immune responses throughout the body and can cause various side effects, so healthcare providers use them only when necessary.
Antibiotics — Although chronic sinusitis is often caused by inflammation rather than infection, sinus infections can develop and aggravate symptoms. As a result, some people need to take antibiotics. It’s not unusual to need long courses of antibiotics, lasting several weeks, to fully treat a sinus infection in a person with chronic sinusitis. (See “Microbiology and antibiotic management of chronic rhinosinusitis”.)
Leukotriene modifiers — Healthcare providers occasionally prescribe a group of medications called leukotriene modifiers to people with chronic sinusitis. These medications include montelukast (Singulair®), zafirlukast (Accolate®), and zileuton (Zyflo®). These treatments work by reducing inflammation in a different way than glucocorticoids. These medications are not used for all types of chronic sinusitis, and they appear to be most helpful for people with chronic sinusitis and nasal polyps who also have asthma.
Surgery — Although healthcare providers usually attempt to get the symptoms of chronic sinusitis under control with medication first, some people need surgery to reopen the sinus passages and remove trapped mucus or polyps (figure 4).
Situations in which surgery is helpful include the following:
- People with chronic sinusitis due to a fungal allergy usually need surgery because the thick, dense mucus that forms in the sinuses is difficult to remove in any other way. The surgery also allows for collection of samples of mucus, which are needed to confirm the diagnosis.
- People with nasal polyps that do not sufficiently shrink with steroid treatment may need surgery to remove remaining polyps.
- People with severe deviation of the septum may benefit from having the septum straightened so the sinuses on both sides can drain more freely.
As discussed above, surgery can be very useful in the treatment of chronic sinusitis, although by itself, it is rarely enough to control symptoms long-term. The factors that caused the sinus linings to become irritated and swollen and produce extra mucus in the first place must be addressed. In addition, because it is often impossible to eliminate these factors completely, most people require medications to control inflammation over time.
SUMMARY — Chronic sinusitis cannot be cured in most cases, although treatment can significantly reduce symptoms and improve quality of life. The best approach to treatment involves identifying the factors that contribute to chronic sinusitis in each specific person and correcting these factors to the degree possible. Most people are treated primarily with medications, although many also need surgery. Even after surgery, medications to control inflammation are usually needed indefinitely.
WHERE TO GET MORE INFORMATION — Your healthcare provider is the best source of information for questions and concerns related to your medical problem.
This article will be updated as needed every four months on our web site (www.uptodate.com/patients).
Related topics for patients, as well as selected articles written for healthcare professionals, are also available. Some of the most relevant are listed below.
Patient Level Information:
Patient information: Acute sinusitis (sinus infection)
Patient information: Allergic rhinitis (seasonal allergies)
Patient information: Quitting smoking
Patient information: Trigger avoidance in allergic rhinitis
Professional Level Information:
Clinical manifestations, pathophysiology, and diagnosis of chronic rhinosinusitis
Medical management of chronic rhinosinusitis
Microbiology and antibiotic management of chronic rhinosinusitis
Septic dural sinus thrombosis
Aspirin exacerbated respiratory disease
The following organizations also provide reliable health information.
- National Library of Medicine
- National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID)
- Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology Online
- American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology
- Fokkens W, Lund V, Bachert C, et al. EAACI position paper on rhinosinusitis and nasal polyps executive summary. Allergy 2005; 60:583.
- Scadding GK, Durham SR, Mirakian R, et al. BSACI guidelines for the management of rhinosinusitis and nasal polyposis. Clin Exp Allergy 2008; 38:260.
- Harvey R, Hannan SA, Badia L, Scadding G. Nasal saline irrigations for the symptoms of chronic rhinosinusitis. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2007; :CD006394.
- Hamilos DL. Approach to the evaluation and medical management of chronic rhinosinusitis. Clin Allergy Immunol 2007; 20:299.