If you suffer from nasal allergies, you’re probably all too familiar with symptoms like a runny nose, itchy throat, watery eyes and sneezing. But did you know that chronic allergies can become more than just an annoyance? If congestion and coughing accompany your usual allergy symptoms, you may have also developed another condition: sinusitis.
What is Sinusitis?
Sinusitis is inflammation of the membranes of the sinus cavities, which are hollow places behind the bones of your face. There are four pairs of sinus cavities that sit—with one sinus on the left side of your face and one on the right side—behind the forehead, the cheekbones, the bones between the eyes and the eyes themselves. The mucus inside the sinuses creates a warm, moist environment that helps you breathe air in, while keeping allergens and foreign objects out. This mucus usually drains through an opening in each sinus. When this opening becomes blocked due to inflammation or another condition, however, mucus can accumulate.
The buildup of mucus causes the uncomfortable symptoms of sinusitis and can even allow the bacteria that normally live in the nose and throat to grow, resulting in a sinus infection. Symptoms of sinusitis may include facial pressure or tenderness, postnasal drip, headache, difficulty smelling, congestion, coughing, toothache, fever and thick, discolored discharge. Sinusitis may occur acutely or, if symptoms persist longer than three months, chronically.
If you suffer from chronic nasal allergies, you’re at an increased risk of developing sinusitis. During an allergic reaction, your body attacks the allergen, a substance it considers an invader. In an attempt to rid the body of the allergen, the immune system releases certain chemicals that cause the telltale signs of nasal allergies. These chemicals also cause swelling in the lining of the nose, which can narrow the sinus openings and prevent mucus from draining from the sinuses. In patients whose allergies are not well controlled, this chronic inflammation often results in sinusitis. Experts also suspect that exposure to inhaled allergens may create inflammation in the lining of the sinuses themselves, further contributing to the risk of sinusitis.
Complications from Sinusitis
Left unchecked, sinusitis can sometimes lead to complications ranging from asthma attacks to meningitis to blood clot formation. More commonly, though, untreated sinusitis is just an avoidable source of suffering. If your allergist suspects you have sinusitis, he or she may conduct a physical exam or order diagnostic tests like a mucus culture, MRI, CT scan or nasal endoscopy, in which a camera is used to examine the sinus cavities. Once the diagnosis is confirmed, several treatments options are available, depending on your symptoms. Your doctor may recommend taking pain medications to relieve discomfort and using a decongestant, nasal spray, saline rinse, vaporizer or warm compress to help excess mucus drain from the sinuses. For patients whose conditions don’t respond to other treatments, surgery is another option.
But the best way to avoid the discomfort associated with sinusitis is to prevent it in the first place. If your sinus symptoms are triggered by nasal allergies, that means keeping your allergies under control. Your allergist will conduct tests to detect your allergy triggers and help you develop a plan to avoid exposure and stop symptoms. If you can’t escape your allergens, your allergist may also prescribe such medications as antihistamines, decongestants, nasal sprays or eye drops to minimize symptoms. You could also be a candidate for allergen immunotherapy, which reduces your sensitivity to allergy triggers and provides long-term allergy relief.
Because the symptoms of sinusitis and allergies can be very similar, many people misdiagnose—and mistreat—their condition. If you think you might be suffering from sinusitis or allergies, make an appointment with your allergist. Getting the right diagnosis and proper treatment is the key to finding relief.