Santa Clara University


Sinus Symptoms

What is happening in my head?

The sinuses are sets of air-filled spaces around the eyes and nose that help warm, clean, and moisten the air you breathe in. When you “catch a cold,’ the lining of the nose and sinuses becomes inflamed, producing more nasal discharge. If the sinus drainage holes become swollen, and mucus is thick and unable to move out, mucus can build up in the sinuses. This can result in a feeling of pressure in the face, difficulty breathing through the nose, or a headache in the face or forehead. Some people may also feel tired and feverish and may notice mucus draining down the back of the throat – sometimes making the throat sore. The mucus can get discolored but it doesn’t mean bacterial infection.

I need to get better fast! What can I do?

Unfortunately, most colds and sinus infections take about seven to 10 days to go away. Because they are caused by viruses, antibiotics don’t help them get better any faster; antibiotics only work against bacteria, which don’t cause colds. However, if you have plugged sinuses for more than a week and you feel as if you’re getting worse, it may be because mucus trapped in the sinus space for that long can grow bacteria. At that point, antibiotics may be helpful. Whether or not you take antibiotics, it is important to keep mucus moving out of the sinuses in order to feel better and speed up recovery.

What does work to “keep things moving” and help me feel better?

Rest and plenty of non-caffeinated fluids generally help. Keeping the mucus moving out of the sinuses can help reduce the pain and prevent a bacterial infection from brewing in the sinuses. Steam and hot chicken soup are safe treatments, but if you want to try something more, the following is a list of over-the-counter remedies that can be taken alone or in combination with each other. Always check with your health care provider or pharmacist to make sure you don’t have certain medical conditions or take certain drugs that could cause problems with some over-the counter medications.

Mucolytics thin the mucus to help it move out of the sinuses. They work better at the higher doses shown here. Lower doses found in combination pills with decongestants aren’t as helpful.

Saline flush or nasal spray helps move the mucus out of the nose. Saline is inexpensive and available in a nasal spray bottle, although a saline solution can easily be made at home (¼ to ½ tsp per cup of distilled or filtered water). Since homemade saline does not contain additives to stop microorganism growth, it should be discarded after one use.

Analgesics relieve fever, body aches, headache, and sore throat. These two analgesics can be used alternately if necessary to relieve symptoms. Both are available over the counter:

Decongestants may help reduce swelling in the nose and sinuses. They are available in a pill or nasal spray. The pills may cause an increase in heart rate and blood pressure, so people with heart problems or high blood pressure should avoid using them. Do not use the nasal spray for more than 3 days, because using it longer can make the swelling worse when you stop using it.

Mucinex D® has both Mucolytics and Decongestants.

Cowell Health Center has many of these over-the-counter medications. Stop by and ask. No appointment needed.