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When a cold becomes acute sinusitis

Sinusitis is swelling or inflammation behind your cheekbones and forehead affecting the lining of the sinuses.

Sinusitis is usually caused by viral or bacterial infection and can be an after effect of a bad cold

Acute sinusitis develops quite soon after a cold, usually within a few days. Normally, the sinuses are filled with air. In acute sinusitis, they become blocked and filled with mucus.

While sinusitis and cold symptoms can make you miserable, they are common problems and affect millions of people each day.

Sinusitis is called chronic sinusitis when the symptoms last for longer than 12 weeks.

What is a common cold?

The common cold is a respiratory infection caused by a virus, most commonly rhinovirus, and affects your nose, throat, and sinuses, which are the upper airways.

Cold symptoms typically begin abruptly with discomfort in your throat. That discomfort is followed by a clear, watery nasal discharge; sneezing; a tired sensation known as malaise. You may become hoarse and develop a cough; adults tend not to develop a fever.

For the first few days of a cold, your nose will be filled with watery nasal secretions. Later, these secretions become thicker and darker. This is normal and does not necessarily mean you have developed a bacterial infection.

No treatment is necessary for a cold, but self-help measures such as ensuring sufficient rest and fluids, alongside salt water gargles may prove beneficial. Some medications can ease symptoms such as paracetamol and ibuprofen. The NHS says there's little evidence that cough medicines work, although some of the ingredients may help with other symptoms like a blocked nose or fever.

Colds will typically last an average of one and a half weeks (10 days).

In some instances a cold may be complicated by acute sinusitis, inflammation and swelling in the sinuses. If you have sinus pain, pain around the face and eyes, and thick yellow or green mucus that persist after a week, then you may have acute sinusitis.

What are the symptoms of acute sinusitis?

Symptoms of acute sinusitis include the following:

  • Thick, often coloured, foul-smelling nasal discharge
  • Facial pressure or pain around the area of the affected sinus, for example, face, eyes, forehead
  • Nasal obstruction
  • Congestion
  • Post-nasal drip (a drop-by-drop release of nasal fluid into the back of the throat)
  • Reduced sense of smell.

By definition, acute sinusitis lasts less than 12 weeks. Keep in mind that a cold can cause some of these symptoms too. But if the pain around your face and eyes and the thick nasal discharge continue for more than a week, you may have acute sinusitis.

You should expect acute sinusitis to last about two and a half weeks.

Home care for sinusitis

Painkillers such as paracetamol and ibuprofen may help relieve symptoms that accompany sinusitis, including headaches, high temperature and facial pain.

Decongestant nasal sprays or drops from pharmacies may help with breathing and unblocking the blocked nose.

The NHS says decongestants will not speed up recovery from sinusitis. Neither does it recommend inhaling steam, or using antihistamines or treatments to make mucus thinner.

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