glenn ellis

Glenn Ellis

*That constant sneezing you thought was a winter cold might just be the beginning of your spring allergies instead.

The mild winter weather is also responsible for an increase in allergens. Trees usually start pollinating in early January, maybe even December, but now there are various grasses and flowers joining them.

Since everything’s warmed up and everything’s started pollinating, you’ve got the two (together).

Allergy sufferers who usually get along pretty well are reporting additional ear, nose and throat problems.

Many areas of the United States have had warmer-than-average winter weather, which is causing trees to start pollinating earlier in some places.

Ever get a sinus infection following a bad cold? It’s called sinusitis. After a cold, you are at greater risk of developing a sinus infection because a cold causes inflammation and swelling of the sinuses.

A stuffy nose may seem like a winter staple. Still, if you’ve been congested and experiencing other uncomfortable symptoms for weeks, you could have a sinus infection.

Sinuses (which are cavities behind the forehead, nasal bones, cheeks, and eyes) do have a purpose. One is to help warm, filter, and moisten the air that you breathe in.

But if the tiny holes that connect the sinuses to your nasal passages become plugged, they can’t drain properly. The accumulation of mucus results in a feeling of heaviness in your face as well as pain from increased pressure on your nerves.

Commonly the symptoms of sinus infection are headache, facial tenderness, pressure or pain, and fever. However, as few as 25% of patients may have fever associated with acute sinus infection. Other common symptoms include:

  1. Cloudy, discolored nasal drainage,
  2. A feeling of nasal stuffiness,
  3. Sore throat, and
  4. Cough.

Some people notice an increased sensitivity or headache when they lean forward because of the additional pressure placed on the sinuses. Others may experience tooth or ear pain, fatigue, or bad breath. In noninfectious sinusitis, other associated allergy symptoms of itching eyes and sneezing may be common, but may include some of the symptoms listed above for infectious sinusitis. Nasal drainage is usually clear or whitish-colored in people with noninfectious sinusitis.

Roughly 20% of the antibiotic prescriptions written in the United States for adults each year are for sinus infections. That’s an impressive statistic, given that doctors and public health officials have long doubted that antibiotics can successfully treat the condition.

A new study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, appears to confirm those doubts: The antibiotic amoxicillin was no better than a “sugar pill” at improving the congestion, cough, runny nose, pain, and other symptoms that accompany sinus infections (also known as acute sinusitis), researchers found.

Most sinus infections are caused by viruses, which don’t respond to antibiotics. But even bacterial sinus infections rarely require antibiotic treatment, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In most cases, both types of infection go away on their own in less than two weeks.

Antibiotics would be more useful if doctors were able to distinguish between viral and bacterial sinusitis. But general practitioners have no tests at their disposal that reliably can tell the difference.

The main reason doctors continue to prescribe antibiotics is that patients have come to expect them diagnose bacterial infections.

The overuse of antibiotics for sinusitis has important public-health implications in light of the growing concerns about antibiotic-resistant bacteria and viruses. Widespread antibiotic use can lead the infectious organisms that cause disease to adapt a defense, making the drug less effective in the population overall.

Antibiotics may be more appropriate to give to certain patients, such as those with diabetes, serious heart or lung disease, who are less able to fight off infection.

It is common for upper respiratory infections (URIs) to occur in the winter, mostly because of the fact that people choose to stay indoors more and are thus interacting more closely with each other on a regular basis. Whenever this happens, viruses are transmitted more readily from person to person, which can increase the secretions from the upper airway. These secretions can then become secondarily infected with the normal bacteria that are constantly living in the nose and mouth, which can then become a bacterial sinus infection. Additionally, cold air can thin the mucosa of the upper airway and decrease the moisture level that normally protects the intranasal membranes.

Here are the 10 most common symptoms of sinus infection. Does any of these sound like the problems you are experiencing?

  1. Pain and/or pressure in the area of your eyes or forehead. Or pain in the very top of your head – especially if the pain gets more intense when you bend over or move your head quickly.
  2. Sinus drainage. This can be any color from clear to greenish-yellow or even bloody. And it may not drain out your nose. Often your sinuses will drain down the back of your throat-and you swallow it.
  3. Nausea or upset stomach-often caused by swallowing the nasal drainage.
  4. Fatigue-Even when you should feel rested. This is the sneakiest one of all. This is the one that creeps up on you slowly and unnoticed. If you are living with the symptoms on this list you are certainly not reaching your true potential at work, family life or even at rest.
  5. Blocked nasal or sinus passages. Especially at night. Are you sleeping with your mouth open because you can’t breathe through your nose when you lie down?
  6. Do you have a poor sense of smell or taste? If you are staying clogged up with mucous I bet you do.
  7. Bad breath. Think about it this way-your senses of smell and taste are really messed up right now-and you can still smell and taste your bad breath. What does everybody else think about your breath right now?
  8. Ear pain. It’s not uncommon for a bad sinus infection to spread to your inner ears.
  9. Sore Throat.
  10. Chills, fever or general malaise. Are you feeling generally lousy?

The best way to fight these infections is by taking care of the things that doctors are always telling you to do:

  • Wash your hands (the most important thing),
  • Don’t touch your face with your hands,
  • Eat a healthy and well balanced diet,
  • Get plenty of rest, and
  •  Stay home when you’re sick so that you don’t pass on the virus to the next person.

For those who are really trying to stay ahead of the curve, nasal irrigation with lukewarm saline (salt water, such as is used with the Netti Pot) can help to clean out the sinuses and improve flow of normal secretions.

Keep in mind, antibiotics only become an option when you’ve had other symptoms (such as a fever) or have had normal sinus infection symptoms for more than about 10 days, since most URIs are viral and improve spontaneously with time.

Remember, I’m not a doctor. I just sound like one.

Take good care of yourself and live the best life possible!

The information included in this column is for educational purposes only. It is not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. The reader should always consult his or her healthcare provider to determine the appropriateness of the information for their own situation or if they have any questions regarding a medical condition or treatment plan.

Glenn Ellis is a Health Advocacy Communications Specialist. He is the author of Which Doctor?, and is  a health columnist and radio commentator who lectures, and is an active media contributor nationally and internationally on health related topics.

His latest book, “Information is the Best Medicine”, was released in January, 2012.

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