By Vien Phommachanh, MD
March 02, 2014
Category: Sinus and Allergy
Tags: Runny Nose   Congestion   Nose   Sinus   Allergy  


What are the sinuses?

The sinuses are air filled spaces in the head and face. There are four paired sinuses, the frontal, ethmoid, maxillary, and sphenoid sinuses. The lining of the sinuses is called the mucosa, which is composed of microscopic hair cells called cilia, and is covered by a layer of mucus. This is part of our immune defense. The mucus traps germs and debris, which is moved by the cilia into our digestive system where it is destroyed. Other important structures include the septum and the turbinates. All of these structures increase the surface area of our nasal cavity and sinuses. As we breathe, air flows over and through these structures and is moistened and warmed before entering our lungs. 

Where does it all go wrong?

People often have anatomic abnormalities that cause difficulty breathing. Septal deviations are very common. This may be from birth or the result of trauma. If the septum is crooked, it can prevent proper airflow through the nose. The turbinates can become chronically swollen in response to allergies or frequent infection. This can also cause blockage of the nasal cavity and trouble breathing. Treating these conditions will usually reverse this, but occasionally these problems need to be surgically corrected.


Allergies can develop at any point in your life. Your body is constantly developing new immune cells. These cells react to “antigens” such as pollen, molds, dust, and pet dander in the environment. The immune system is stimulated and causes inflammation of the sinuses, sneezing, nasal congestion, runny nose, and itchy eyes. These are typically treated with antihistamines and nasal steroid or antihistamine sprays. If allergies are severe, they can be identified with skin testing. You can then be desensitized to these allergens by receiving injections or sublingual treatment with increasing doses of these antigens until your body becomes unresponsive to them. This is called immunotherapy.

What is sinusitis?

Sinusitis is infection of the sinuses. Most infections are viral and will resolve without treatment. Medications can be used to treat the symptoms. Decongestants (pseudoephedrine, phenylephrine) can be used for difficulty breathing. Nasal saline rinses are used to remove excess mucus. Mucolytics (Guaifenesin) are used to thin mucus. If infection does not resolve, antibiotics may be used. Typically,This is reserved for infections that do not clear for 7-10 days. Antibiotics are only effective against bacterial infections and are often wrongly used to treat viral infections or allergies. This is potentially harmful. Overuse of antibiotics has led to antibiotic resistant bacteria. Overuse of antibiotics can also destroy the “normal” bacteria in our bodies that serve important functions. This can allow overgrowth of “bad” bacteria that can cause harmful infection.


Chronic Sinusitis

Sinus infections can be difficult to treat because of less effective delivery of medication to this part of the body. Sinus infections can become chronic when symptoms last over 12 weeks. This can occur when the small openings of the sinuses become blocked by swelling, preventing proper drainage of mucus and infection. This often requires longer courses of antibiotics. If the infection does not resolve with antibiotics, surgery is sometimes required to open the sinuses and allow drainage and resolution of infection.

Sinus Surgery 

Balloon Sinuplasty – This is a newer, less invasive method. It is usually done in the office with local anesthesia with discomfort similar to dental procedures. A balloon is used to stretch open the sinuses in a similar way to angioplasty for blood vessels. This method cannot be used for polyps or fungal disease.

Functional Endoscopic Sinus Surgery – This method is done under general anesthesia and used to remove polyps, fungal disease, or severe blockage. It allows for better exposure for the surgeon, but greater risk of complication, bleeding, and scarring and requires more postoperative care.

Preventative Care

Daily saline irrigations are a good way to remove antigens and germs from our sinuses. Regular use can potentially prevent triggering the immune response, allergy symptoms, and infection. It is very important to use clean (bottled or boiled) water to prevent infection. It is also very important to clean and replace the containers regularly avoid the accumulation of bacteria. Avoidance of allergens is helpful when possible. Measures to reduce environmental allergens includes dust mite covers for bedding and mattresses, air filters, and removal of carpeting.