Are Sinus Infections Contagious? How To Stop The Spread

Sinus infections are fairly common, affecting the air-filled pockets in your face. If you have sinusitis, you may mistake it for a cold, flu, or even COVID-19. Understanding how sinus infections happen and how to deal with them can help you get over one quickly.

What is a sinus infection?

A sinus infection happens when your sinuses fill with fluid that allows germs to grow. While viruses cause most sinus infections, bacteria can cause them too.

Most sinus infections are not serious and get better on their own, although they can be annoying and cause unpleasant symptoms.

How do you know you have a sinus infection?

Sinus infections typically come with some or all of the following symptoms:

  • Stuffy or runny nose

  • Pain or pressure in your face

  • Headache (rarely)

  • Postnasal drip: Mucus dripping down your throat. This can cause a cough or a sore throat.

  • Bad breath

These symptoms often overlap with other conditions. A stuffy or runny nose is more likely to be a simple cold or other upper respiratory infection, which can also cause postnasal drip.

Cold symptoms tend to improve much faster. If your "cold" lasts longer than ten days without improvement, it may be a sinus infection. Cold viruses can cause sinusitis if they get into your sinuses. Another sign of a sinus infection is If you think you’ve recovered, but your cold symptoms come back.

How are sinus infections treated?

Most sinus infections are viral, which you can’t treat with antibiotics. The majority of bacterial sinus infections do not require antibiotics. Most clear up on their own within one or two weeks. 

Your doctor may prescribe antibiotics if:

  • You have a thick, colorful nasal discharge or facial pressure/pain for at least ten days

  • You have these symptoms, get better, and then get worse again.

Your doctor may suggest watchful waiting, only giving you a prescription if you don't get better within a particular timeframe. Or they may give you a prescription but tell you to only fill or take it if certain criteria are met, so you don't have to return to the office.

Whether or not your doctor prescribes antibiotics, they will treat your sinus infection based on your symptoms. Your doctor will advise you on managing your sinusitis and what over-the-counter medications to take. Treatments that can help you feel better to include:

  • Breathing in the steam from a hot bowl of water or taking a long hot shower to break down mucus and fluid

  • A decongestant opens up the airways by bringing down blood vessel swelling in your nose

  • Saline or steroid nasal sprays

  • A warm compress over your nose and forehead

  • Over-the-counter pain relievers

  • Nasal irrigation: The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology recommends a saline sinus rinse

  • Prop your head up when sleeping to keep mucus from pooling in your sinuses.

Are sinus infections contagious?

Whether or not your sinus infection is contagious depends on its cause. Most sinus infections are caused by or secondary to cold, flu, or other upper respiratory tract infections. In this case, you may be contagious.

Some people may have sinusitis from allergies, deformity, or blockage in the nasal passages. These are not contagious. 

The jury is out on how contagious bacterial sinus infections are.

In most cases, if you have a sinus infection, you won’t give a sinus infection to someone else. But you might give them the original cold that started the sinus infection.

How can I make sure I don’t spread a sinus infection to others?

As the most common cause of sinusitis is a virus, assume you’re contagious and act accordingly. You should practice proper hygiene to avoid passing on germs.

Wash your hands

Washing your hands is the most important thing you can do to reduce the spread of infection. Wash your hands: 

  • Before and after eating or cooking

  • After using the toilet

  • After blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing

Dispose of tissues properly

Dispose of tissues in lined trash containers, not unlined waste baskets, to ensure somebody doesn’t have to touch them when emptying the trash. This is especially important if your tissues have mucus on.

Catch your sneezes and coughs

Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing. If you can't get to a tissue, use the crook of your elbow, not your hand.

Stop sharing 

That’s right—this is the perfect opportunity to keep that share bag of chips to yourself. Don't share anything that might come into contact with your faces, such as lipstick, utensils, or food.

Basically, take the same steps as if you have a cold or other viral infection.

The lowdown

Sinus infections are common, and viruses are the main cause. As viral sinus infections can be contagious, take basic hygiene precautions. However, not all sinus infections are contagious, and you should talk to your doctor about what precautions to take.

You should only take antibiotics for a sinus infection if recommended by your doctor. Antibiotics do not work for viral infections and are not always necessary for bacterial sinus infections. Instead, follow your doctor's advice and practice basic self-care, such as using a nasal spray or taking over-the-counter medication to recover faster.

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