An older gentleman suffering from congestion

What is Sinus Congestion?

Sinus congestion (sometimes known as head congestion) can occur if you have a sinus infection, which is also known as acute sinusitis. This condition causes the cavities around your nasal passages and sinuses to become inflamed and swollen, which interferes with drainage and causes mucus to build up.

Sinus Congestion Symptoms

The symptoms of this condition can include:

  • Pain, tenderness, or swelling and pressure around your eyes, cheeks, nose, or forehead
  • A cough, which is generally worse at night
  • Drainage of mucus that is thick and yellow or green in color from the nose or the back of the throat
  • Nasal congestion or complete obstruction, which causes difficulty breathing from your nose
  • A reduced sense of taste and smell

Other symptoms of more severe sinus infections include headache, fatigue, fever, aching in your jaw and teeth, bad breath, and ear pain.

Sinus Congestion Causes

Sinusitis ocurrs when the mucous membranes of your nose, throat, and sinuses become inflamed. The swelling causes the sinus opening to be compromised, which prevents mucus from draining normally. Because blocked sinuses are a moist environment, this makes it easy for infections to take hold. When your sinuses are infected, this is what leads to the symptoms such as thick and yellowish discharge.

There are certain conditions that commonly cause acute sinusitis to occur. These include:

  • Viral infection: Most cases of sinus infections are caused by the common cold, which is a virus.
  • Bacterial infection: If a sinus infection lasts for more than a week, then it is more likely to be caused by bacteria rather than a virus, which tend to clear up quicker.
  • Fungal infection: Fungal infections are much more rare but could occur if you have sinus abnormalities or a weakened immune system.

There are also some conditions that could increase your risk of developing a sinus infection. These include:

  • Allergies: Allergies block your sinuses and can cause inflammation, which can lead to sinus congestion and infection.
  • Nasal polyps: Nasal polyps are harmless tissue growths that could block your sinuses or nasal passages.
  • Tooth infection: Rarely, sinus infections are a result of an infected tooth.
  • Deviated nasal septum: When the wall between your nostrils is crooked, this could restrict or block your sinus passages and lead to infection.

Sinus Congestion Diagnosis

If your doctor suspects your sinus congestion may be due to an infection, he or she will likely recommend some tests and exams to help confirm the diagnosis. These include:

  • Physical exam: This will help your doctor to look for the cause of your symptoms by feeling for tenderness in your nose or throat.
  • Nasal endoscopy: This involves using an endoscope with a fiber optic light that is inserted into your nose and allows your doctor to see inside your sinuses.
  • Imaging tests: If there are suspected complications from a sinus infection, your doctor may recommend a CT scan or MRI to get a better picture of your nasal area and sinuses.
  • Nasal and sinus cultures: Though lab tests are usually unnecessary, if your sinus infection fails to respond to treatment, taking a sample to be examined may help determine what is causing the infection.
  • Allergy testing: If your condition is caused by allergies, your doctor will perform an allergy skin test to pinpoint the allergen that is causing your congestion.

Sinus Congestion Treatments

Most cases of acute sinusitis will not need treatment because they are caused by viruses. Self-treating your symptoms is usually the best way to treat a sinus infection, unless your doctor thinks the infection is bacterial and is severe enough to need antibiotics. Some of the commonly recommended treatments include using a saline nasal spray, nasal corticosteroids, decongestants, and over the counter pain relievers and anti-inflammatory medications. 

Last Updated: December 16, 2016