What Causes Sinus Problems?

Medically Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD on January 16, 2014

What made your good sinuses go bad?

The problem isn’t the sinuses themselves. They’re just hollow air spaces within the bones between your eyes, behind your cheekbones, and in the forehead. They make mucus, which keep the inside of your nose moist. That, in turn, helps protect against dust, allergens, and pollutants.

That’s all normal. So what happened to yours?

Leading Suspects

If the tissue in your nose is swollen from allergies, a cold, or something in the environment, it can block the sinus passages. Your sinuses can’t drain, and you may feel pain.

Sinuses are also are responsible for the depth and tone of your voice. This explains why you sound like Clint Eastwood when you're all stuffed up.

There are eight sinus cavities in total. They are paired, with one of each in the left and right side of the face.

  • Two sinus cavities are in your forehead.
  • Two are behind each cheekbone.
  • Two sinus cavities are within the bones between your eyes.
  • Two are behind each eye.

Common Sinus Problems

Blockages. Each sinus has a narrow spot, called the transition space (ostium), which is an opening that’s responsible for drainage. If a bottleneck or blockage happens in the transition of any of your sinuses, mucus backs up.

An extra sinus. About 10% of people have one. It narrows that transition space.

Deviated nasal septum. Your nasal septum is the thin wall of bone and cartilage inside your nasal cavity that separates your two nasal passages. Ideally, it’s in the center of your nose, equally separating the two sides. But in many people, whether from genetics or an injury, it’s off to one side, or “deviated.” That makes one nasal passage smaller than another. A deviated septum is one reason some people have sinus issues. It can also cause snoring.

Narrow sinuses. Some people just have variations in their anatomy that creates a longer, narrower path for the transition spaces to drain.

Sinus sensitivity and allergies. You may be sensitive to things in your environment and to certain foods you eat. That can cause a reaction that leads to swelling in the nose.

Your doctor can prescribe medications to control your symptoms. If you have sinus problems and allergies, you should avoid irritants such as tobacco smoke and strong chemical odors.

How to Protect Your Sinuses

Use these tips to reduce inflammation and prevent problems:

  • Apply a warm, moist washcloth to your face several times a day to help open the transition spaces.
  • Drink plenty of fluids to thin the mucus.
  • Inhale steam two to four times per day. Sit in the bathroom with the hot shower running.
  • Use a nasal saline spray several times per day.
  • Wash your nose with a salt water solution from a neti pot.
  • Get a humidifier to moisten the air you breathe and help open sinuses.

If your sinus problems are related to allergies:

  • Avoid your allergy triggers.
  • Use antihistamines and decongestants if needed.
  • Talk to your doctor to see if you need prescription medicines, allergy shots, or other forms of "immunotherapy" (such as under-the-tongue tablets).
  • Lastly, if your sinus problems keep coming back, you can ask your doctor about the pros and cons of surgery to clean and drain the sinuses.

Show Sources


Ford Albritton, MD, director, the Center for Sinus and Respiratory Disease at the Texas Institute, Dallas.

Jordan Josephson, MD, director, NY Nasal & Sinus Center; attending physician, Lennox Hill Hospital; author, Sinus Relief Now. “When Sinuses Attack.”

National Institutes of Health: “Sinusitis.”

WebMD Medical Reference: “When a Cold Becomes a Sinus Infection.”

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