The congestion you feel from seasonal allergies doesn't have to lead to sinus problems. It’s easy to confuse their symptoms, so here’s how to prevent and treat them.
Few symptoms of disease or illness are so discrete that they point directly at a single condition.
Take allergy and sinus inflammation, or sinusitis, for instance. Your congestion and facial pain can indicate one and not the other or may actually mean you have both, says Dean C. Mitchell, M.D., author of Dr. Dean Mitchell's Allergy and Asthma Solution (Marlowe & Co.).
Allergies occur when the immune system mistakenly identifies a substance such as pollen or mold as harmful and launches an attack on the invader. The cascade of chemical events that occurs as the body defends itself ultimately leads to inflammation.
The inflammation caused by an allergy affects the nasal passages first. If it extends deeper into the sinuses -- the air-filled areas behind the forehead, cheeks, eyes and nasal bones -- it's called sinusitis.
The sinuses are lined with thin, mucous-producing tissue that swells when inflamed, preventing mucous from flowing freely into the nose. Air and mucous may become trapped in the sinuses, causing pressure and pain, and setting the stage for infection. Studies show that sinusitis rarely occurs without inflammation of the nasal mucous membranes, or rhinitis, whether it's caused by an allergy or not.
An allergic reaction to something you've breathed and the more serious condition of sinusitis have these symptoms in common:
Here’s how the two conditions tend to differ:
Allergies can't be prevented, but you can take action to keep your runny nose and congestion from progressing to acute sinusitis. Limit your exposure to pets, pollen, mold or whatever makes you sneeze, says the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America.
Take medication before trouble starts. If you're prone to seasonal allergies, talk to your health-care provider about medications like nasal sprays that you take even before the pollen count rises.
Patients who suffer from recurring bouts of allergic rhinitis should observe their symptoms on a continual basis. If facial pain or a greenish-yellow nasal discharge occurs, a qualified ear, nose and throat specialist can provide appropriate treatment.
Once nasal passages start to swell, take steps to remedy the discomfort and prevent the inflammation from worsening, whether it's in your nasal passages (allergic rhinitis) or has traveled deeper into your sinuses (sinusitis).
Severe symptoms, like a fever over 100.5 F or sinus discomfort that lasts for more than 10 days, require medical attention. Don't be tempted to self-diagnose or self-medicate with those antibiotics left over from your last sinus infection, either. According to the Infectious Diseases Society of America, bacteria causes only 10 percent or fewer cases of sinusitis, and inappropriate antibiotic use can lead to problems, including antibiotic resistance.
Here are some additional things you can do at home to ease minor symptoms:
In short, there are many different strategies that can be used to relieve symptoms. And while the first instinct shouldn’t always be to rush in to the doctor’s office for an antibiotic, don’t hesitate to work with your health care provider when you need help managing the symptoms or the optimal treatment of allergies, sinusitis or other illnesses.