A sinus infection happens when the sinuses become swollen and blocked. Most sinus infections are caused by viruses, so it’s common to get one after you’ve been sick with a cold or the flu.
These viruses (and bacteria) can spread through airborne droplets that fly when we cough or sneeze. So the organisms that cause sinus infections are contagious.
Most infections get better on their own. When they don’t, Dr. B can help relieve the pressure with a convenient online consultation. Before we get to that, here’s more about how sinus infections spread and some at-home remedies to help you feel better fast.
Sinusitis is the medical term for a sinus infection.
Sinuses are empty chambers behind your cheeks and forehead. The sinuses connect to your nasal passages in the nose. Your sinuses have a very important job: to make mucus. As the mucus drains out of your nose, it carries out bacteria, dust and germs that could cause problems.
Sometimes, this process doesn’t work smoothly. When bacteria, dust or viruses irritate one or more of your sinuses, it can cause swelling (inflammation) and blockage. The sinuses fill up with fluid (mucus), causing a sinus infection.
A sinus infection is more than just a cold. In addition to typical cold symptoms, you might also have pain or pressure in your face, teeth or ears.
Symptoms of a sinus infection include:
Sinus infections can be caused by bacteria, viruses, allergies or fungi.
There’s no way to know whether your sinusitis is bacterial or viral just based on symptoms. Instead, healthcare providers review other clues, like how long you’ve had symptoms or if you’ve recently had any other illnesses.
If you are very congested or if your sinuses become inflamed due to allergies, it could block your sinuses and develop into a sinus infection.
Viruses usually get better on their own in a week or two. But the influenza virus (which causes the flu) and the virus that causes the common cold can develop into a viral sinus infection.
When a virus or allergy causes the sinuses to swell and fill with mucus, bacteria can grow inside the sinuses. If you’ve had symptoms for 10 days or more—or your symptoms get better and then get worse—it might be because you had a viral infection turned into a bacterial infection.
Remember, a sinus infection happens when the sinuses are blocked, which traps viruses or bacteria inside the sinuses. When these germs are trapped inside, they can’t spread to others.
But if your sinusitis is caused by an upper respiratory infection (like the cold or flu), you can spread those germs when you cough, sneeze or share eating utensils and others can get sick with a cold or flu as a result. That doesn’t necessarily mean they will develop a sinus infection, too. But they may.
So sinus infections aren’t contagious on their own. But the flu and common cold that can cause them can be transmitted through droplets to infect others, irritating sinuses and causing an infection.
Sinusitis doesn’t spread from person to person. But the viruses and bacteria that cause them can spread. That’s why it’s important to protect yourself and others during cold and flu season by practicing good hygiene:
Thankfully, most acute sinus infections get better on their own in a few weeks. But you can help yourself feel better faster in a couple of ways:
Most sinus infections get better without antibiotics—even bacterial infections. Your provider might recommend “watchful waiting” to see if your symptoms improve in 2-3 days. This gives your immune system a chance to fight the infection.
Decongestants can be helpful, as they help reduce swelling in the blood vessels of your nose. When swelling goes down, it’s easier for mucus and germs to drain. This reduces the chance that a viral sinus infection will become a bacterial infection.
If your symptoms don’t get better in 10 days, talk to your healthcare provider. See a provider if you’ve had several infections in the last year or if you have severe pain.
There’s no need to venture to a crowded doctor’s office if you suffer from sinusitis—Dr. B can help you get sinus infection treatment online! Just complete a short health questionnaire about your symptoms and health history. We’ll connect you with a licensed medical provider online who will review your treatment and, if appropriate, send a prescription to your pharmacy of choice. Learn more about How It Works. Or get started with sinus infection treatment today!
Chow, A.W. et al. (2012). IDSA clinical practice guideline for acute bacterial rhinosinusitis in children and adults. Clinical Infectious Diseases.
Battisti, A.S., et al. (2022). Sinusitis. StatPearls.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2019). Sinus infection (sinusitis).
Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care. (2019). How can you protect yourself from respiratory infections? StatPearls.