When Is a Sinus Infection Serious?

Find out how you can tell the difference between a viral and bacterial sinusitis – plus what to do if you suspect an infection.

Sanaz Majd, MD,
January 21, 2016
Episode #125

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Treatment of Sinusitis

If the inflammation of the sinuses is simply due to the common cold (which can actually be pretty nasty, hence nothing “simple” about it), it will self-resolve. There is no cure for viruses, and antibiotics only help bacterial infections, not viruses. Therefore, it’s highly recommended that you don’t jump to antibiotics during the first 7 days of a cold.

See also: Antibiotic Use and Overuse


If your sinusitis is deemed bacterial in nature by your doctor, sometimes antibiotics may be necessary. I still say sometimes, because even mild bacterial sinus infections can improve on their own without antibiotics. The severity of your symptoms will really determine whether the benefits of antibiotics outweigh the risks, and only your doctor can determine that for you. The antibiotic amoxicillin is often the first choice by most doctors for sinus infections (unless you are allergic to it or penicillin).

Here are some ways to treat your sinus symptoms without antibiotics (just check with your doctor first to make sure you can take some of these over-the-counter treatments):

  • Oral decongestants like phenylephrine or pseudoephedrine

  • Nasal sinus rinses with saline

  • Anti-inflammatory medications, like ibuprofen (again, please check with your doc first since it is not safe for everyone)

  • Vaporizer or humidifier

  • Hot baths/showers

  • Hot liquids to sip on all day long

Quick and Dirty Tip: Avoid over-the-counter medicated nasal sprays because they can actually worsen nasal congestion when the effects wear off.

My advice to most of my patient is to tough it out for 7-10 days after first developing nasal congestion using over-the-counter and non-prescription methods, but be seen after that if you are still feeling super snotty.

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Please note that all content here is strictly for informational purposes only. This content does not substitute any medical advice, and does not replace any medical judgment or reasoning by your own personal health provider. Please always seek a licensed physician in your area regarding all health related questions and issues.

Sinuses and Woman with Sinus Pain images from Shutterstock