About 35 million Americans suffer from a sinus infection or sinusitis every year. (1) Sinusitis is an inflammation, or swelling, of the tissue lining the sinuses that leads to an infection. It can result in mucus build-up and pain. If you’ve ever experienced a sinus infection, then you know just how unpleasant it can be — much worse than a stuffy nose. While in most cases, a sinus infection will simply leave you running to find a decongestant, in the worst cases, it can lead to surgery to remove an abscess that has developed or the obstruction of the sinuses.
In the United States, sinusitis is the fifth most common medical diagnosis for which antibiotics are prescribed these days. The management of acute and chronic sinusitis is also costing this country over $11 billion every year. That doesn’t even include the economic impact of lost work time due to illness. (2)
While antibiotics for sinus infection are a very common conventional treatment, the majority of sinus infections are actually the result of colds or viruses. They will get better as your nasal congestion improves.
Thankfully, there are a lot of natural ways to treat a sinus infection, including the foods you eat (and don’t eat), saline nasal sprays, essential oils and supplements scientifically proven to be an effective sinus infection home remedy.
What is a Sinus Infection?
The sinuses, or sinus cavities, are hollow spaces that air flows through within the bones surrounding the nose. A sinus infection or sinusitis occurs when your nasal cavities become swollen and inflamed. Normally, your sinuses are filled with air. When sinuses become blocked and filled with fluid, germs (bacteria, viruses, and fungi) can grow and cause an infection.
How long do sinus infections last? Well, that depends on what type of sinus infection you have. Acute sinusitis can last over two weeks even with appropriate treatment. If your sinus infection lasts longer than 10 to 14 days, then you’re more likely to have bacterial sinusitis. Chronic sinusitis lasts much longer — at least 12 weeks! Chronic sinusitis with polyps is an inflammation of the sinuses that lasts 12 weeks or longer and is associated with having nasal polyps. Other forms of chronic sinusitis are associated with allergies or a deviated septum and also last 12 weeks or longer.
Is a sinus infection contagious? The answer to that question: it depends on what caused it in the first place. If a virus causes your sinus infection, then you can spread that virus. This means that a person who catches your sickness (the virus) will then likely get a cold, which could turn into a sinus infection, but also could just stay a cold. In some instances, the flu also triggers a sinus infection. If you have a virus-based sinus infection, you actually could have been contagious days before you got the actual sinus infection. Bacteria also can cause a sinus infection. That means your infection cannot be spread to others. However, a bacterial sinus infection is typically more intense and lasts longer than a viral sinus infection. (4)
How can you tell what type of sinus infection you have? Your doctor won’t be able to tell you if your sinus infection is bacterial or viral based on symptoms or an exam alone. The best way to tell the root of a sinus infection is symptom duration. If it’s a viral sinus infection, it should start to improve after five to seven days. On the other hand, a bacterial infection often lasts seven to 10 days or even longer and the infection can get worse after seven days. (5)
Signs & Symptoms
Many sinus infection symptoms are common to both acute and chronic cases of sinusitis.
- Thick, yellow, foul-smelling discharge from your nose
- Blockage in your nose
- Post-nasal drip
- Sinus pressure or pain around your face and eyes
- Headache (generally in the forehead area and often referred to as a “sinus headache”)
- A cold that doesn’t go away or gets even worse
It’s important to note that these all symptoms that can occur with the common cold. It’s when these symptoms continue for longer than 10 days, that you may have a sinus infection. If you have two or more symptoms and/or you have thick, green, or yellow nasal discharge, then it may be acute sinusitis.
With chronic sinusitis, you continue to have these symptoms for 12 weeks or longer plus you may also experience the following: (8)
- A feeling of congestion or fullness in your face
- Pus in the nasal cavity
- Runny nose or discolored postnasal drainage
- Bad breath
- Tooth pain
- Feeling tired very often
Causes & Risk Factors
- Respiratory infections like the common cold
- Hay fever or exposure to allergens such as cigarette smoke, dry air and pollutants
- Obstructions in the nasal or sinus cavities including nasal polyps, deviated septum, or nasal bone spur
- Non-allergic rhinitis (allergy-like symptoms that don’t have a known cause)
- Changes in air pressure (for example, from swimming or climbing high altitudes)
- Infections resulting from dental problems
- Physical injury to the sinuses
- Bacteria, viruses, and fungi
The five most common bacteria that can cause sinus infections are: Streptococcus pneumoniae, Haemophilus influenzae, Moraxella catarrhalis, Staphylococcus aureus, and Streptococcus pyogenes. (11)
Risk factors (some of which overlap with causes) for sinus infections include: (12)
- Having asthma
- Overuse of nasal decongestants
- Frequent swimming or diving
- Climbing or flying to high altitudes
- Nasal polyps (small growths/swellings in the nasal passage), nasal bone spurs, or other abnormalities such as a deviated septum or cleft palate
- Dental infection
- Exposure to air pollution and cigarette smoke
- Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
- Being in the hospital, especially if the reason you are in the hospital is related to a head injury or you needed a tube inserted into your nose (for example, a nasogastric tube from your nose to your stomach)
For a sinus infection, many doctors will recommend antibiotics if your symptoms go on for more than 10 days or if the sinus infection is deemed to be bacterial. If your sinus infection has a viral origin then you absolutely do not require antibiotic treatment. Amoxicillin (Amoxil) is commonly prescribed for an uncomplicated acute sinus infection. Many doctors will also use amoxicillin-clavulanate (Augmentin) as their drug of choice for treatment of a suspected bacterial sinus infection because it is said typically to be effective against most of the species and strains of bacteria that cause bacterial sinus infections. (13)
Many doctors will also recommend nasal corticosteroids, decongestants, pain medications, fever reducers, antihistamines, mucolytics and other drugs. It’s important to read the side effects of any and all recommend drugs. It’s also crucial to know that many doctors continue to prescribe antibiotics for viral sinus infections and this is only furthering the problem of antibiotic resistance.
10 Natural Remedies for Sinus Infections
1. Top Foods & Beverages for Sinus Infections
- Water — Adequate hydration is the key to flushing out the virus from your system. Try to drink at least 8 ounces every 2 hours.
- Chicken broth with vegetables —This traditional remedy of bone broth helps soothe the nasal cavities and respiratory system, along with providing important minerals.
- Horseradish — Anyone who has accidentally eaten too much horseradish has experienced its potent ability to clear nasal passages. Mix some horseradish with lemon to make it even more potent.
- Ginger — Make a ginger tea and add raw honey to aid in recovery.
- Garlic and onions — Both of these vegetables help boost immune function.
- Vitamin C rich foods — Consuming foods high in vitamin C can boost the immune system and speed recovery from sinusitis.
2. Foods & Beverages to Avoid
- Sugar — Decreases white blood cells that help fight off infection.
- Fruit juices — Although orange juice contains some vitamin C, it is not as high in vitamin C as whole fruits or vegetables. If you want to drink juice, dilute it.
- Dairy products — Milk and other dairy products are mucus producing so it is best to avoid them.
- Refined flour and grains — All refined grains can cause more mucus production.
- Salt — Without adequate water intake, salt can be dehydrating and slow healing of the inflammation of the sinuses.
3. Oil of Oregano
Oregano oil contains two powerful compounds of carvacrol and thymol that have powerful anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties. I recommend 500 milligrams of oregano oil four times per day. For sinus infections, you can also add few drops of oregano oil to a large bowl of recently boiled water. Being careful not to burn yourself, cover your head with a towel creating a tent to keep the steam in, close your eyes and put your face over the pot (a safe distance from the hot water) and inhale the fragrant steam for a few minutes. This will help to clear the nasal passages and can be repeated several times a day. (14)
4. Grapefruit seed extract
Grapefruit seed extract has potent antiviral properties. This is why it is included in many nasal and throat sprays. The main biological compounds in a grapefruit seed that are believed to be responsible for its ability to destroy infectious invaders are the polyphenols known as limonoids and naringenin. (15) I recommend using a grapefruit seed extract nasal spray four times per day.
5. Vitamin C
Vitamin C is essential to proper function of the immune system, which is the system that protects your body from getting infections and also helps your body to fight infections once it has one. As an antioxidant, vitamin C also helps guard our cells from free radical damage. Free radicals are found in things that can commonly contribute to the development of sinus infections like air pollution and cigarette smoke. (16) I recommend 1,000 milligrams of vitamin C three times per day.
Garlic is one of nature’s best antibiotics. Since colds often lead to a sinus infection, garlic is an awesome way not only to naturally treat a sinus infection, but to prevent it in the first place. In one study, people took either garlic supplements or a placebo for 12 weeks during cold season (between November and February). The garlic takers were less likely to get a cold, and if they did get a cold, they recovered faster than the placebo group. Those who didn’t take garlic (placebo group) had a much greater likelihood of contracting more than one cold over the 12-week treatment period. The study attributes garlic’s ability to prevent the common cold virus to its star biologically active component component, allicin. (17)
For general health promotion for adults, the World Health Organization recommends a daily dose of two to five grams (about one clove) of fresh garlic, 0.4 to 1.2 grams of dried garlic powder, two to five milligrams of garlic oil, 300 to 1,000 milligrams of garlic extract, or other formulations that are equal to two to five milligrams of allicin. (18)
Echinacea is an herb that can help your body fight off viruses and bacteria. Professional herbalists will often recommend this herb for natural treatment of sinus infections. Scientific studies have shown that echinacea contains active substances that are antiviral and boost the immune system while also reduce pain and inflammation, which is a perfect combination of effects or a sinus infection. (19) It is best to take an echinacea supplement at the first sign of illness. I recommend 1,000 milligrams two to three times per day.
8. Neti Pot
Using a neti pot with a saline solution can also greatly improve sinus issues and clear the nasal passage ways. This process is called “nasal irrigation.” Research published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal has even shown that neti pot usage can eliminate some symptoms of chronic sinusitis and maintain positive outcomes over a six month time span. According to Dr. Paul Little, lead author and a professor of medicine at the University of Southampton, “In addition to improving sinus symptoms, headaches were reduced, there was less use of over-the-counter remedies, and people also said they were less likely to contact the doctor again for a future attack of sinusitis.” (20)
9. Add Moisture
Whether it’s a humidifier, saline nasal spray, or sitting in a steam-filled bathroom, adding more moisture to the air and your nasal passages can really help to reduce congestion. (21) I highly recommend sleeping with a humidifier while you have a sinus infection. You can also purchase a natural saline nasal spray that you can use several times a day (following package instructions). Steam inhalation is especially good at reducing sinus headaches.
10. Essential Oils
To naturally clear the sinuses, using eucalyptus oil and peppermint oil can be highly effective. These essential oils can naturally open up the sinuses, clear mucus and eliminate infections. Rub one drop of each on the roof of the mouth (only do this with food grade essential oils). Then drink water. Another great idea is to diffuse essential oils into the air so you can breathe them in. My homemade vapor rub recipe can also be helpful for sinus infections.
If your sinus infection symptoms get worse or you do not see improvement after 10 to 14 days, then you should see your doctor. An unimproved sinus infection can lead to other conditions such as bronchitis or complications and the need for surgery.
When first experiencing allergy-like symptoms, you may also want to consult an allergist because an allergist may be able to pinpoint the cause of your symptoms.
Always check with your doctor before taking any natural supplements if you are pregnant, breastfeeding, have any ongoing medical concerns, or are currently taking other medications.
Unfortunately, sinus infections are pretty common these days. As is unnecessary treatment with antibiotics. Remember that antibiotics are absolutely unnecessary when it comes to treating viral sinus infections (and most are caused by a virus). Taking antibiotics can do much more harm than good to your body, especially if you take them when they are truly not needed.
Most sinus infections respond well to natural sinusitis treatment. There are so many natural options to choose from that are not just effective, but are also affordable and easy to do in the comfort of your home.