How Do I Know If I Have Sinusitis?

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on February 15, 2023
4 min read

You know the symptoms of a common cold: stuffy nose or runny nose, sore throat, sneezing, and general misery. It usually clears up in a week or so and you’re back to normal. But if the symptoms don’t go away in a few days, or if they come back frequently, your sinuses may be the problem.

Sinusitis is an inflammation of your sinuses, usually caused by a virus or bacterial infection. Even fungus can cause it.

Most cases of sinusitis are “acute,” which means they come on suddenly and don’t last long (less than 8 weeks). If yours lasts longer than 12 weeks, or they keep happening, your condition is ongoing, or “chronic.” Chronic sinusitis needs to be diagnosed by a doctor, and it may require more treatment than acute sinusitis.

If you’ve been sick for 10 days or more with no improvement, or you got slightly better and then got sicker, it’s probably a bacterial infection. Again, you’ll need to see your doctor to find out.

If it’s a bacterial sinus infection, you may need antibiotics. You may also get better without medicine, but antibiotics can help things move faster.

Other symptoms of sinusitis include congestion that makes it hard to breathe through your nose, and tenderness around your nose and eyes. If you cough up colored mucus or feel mucus drain down the back of your throat, you could have sinusitis.

You may also think you have a toothache when it’s really a sinus infection. Your upper back teeth are very close to your sinuses, so tooth pain (and facial pain) is a very common symptom of a sinus infection. If you’re not sure, check with your doctor or dentist.

If you have any of the above symptoms and over-the-counter treatments don’t help, make a doctor’s appointment soon.

Contact your doctor immediately if you have any of these severe symptoms, which could be signs of a serious infection:

To find out if you’ve got more than a bad cold, you need to learn the cause of your symptoms. Your doctor can help you figure out whether you have sinusitis or something else.

Tell your doctor how long you’ve had sinus symptoms, and whether they’ve gotten worse or stayed the same. If you’ve had them for less than 10 days and they’re not getting worse, you probably have a viral infection. It will likely go away on its own.

Over-the-counter treatments like saline sprays, acetaminophen, or ibuprofen may help ease symptoms along the way. Decongestants might reduce the swelling and inflammation temporarily. If you use them, read the directions carefully and only use as directed. Using nasal decongestant sprays for more than a few days could make the congestion worse.

Another over-the-counter option is a bioelectronic sinus device that can help reduce sinus inflammation, pain, and congestion. It uses microcurrents to stimulate nerve fibers to help reduce symptoms.

Your doctor will talk to you about your symptoms, and then they’ll look inside your nose. They may start out with an otoscope, an instrument that helps doctors examine the ear and nose. Signs of swelling, congestion, and infection may be obvious, and you may learn right away that it’s sinusitis.

If your doctor still doesn’t know for sure, they may want to use a light to see inside your nose.

You may also get a “nasal endoscopy,” a quick and simple procedure which lets your doctor see inside your sinuses. You’ll get a spray that numbs your nose. The doctor will then insert a thin flexible device called an endoscope inside your nose. The instrument has a tiny lens at one end, which shows a detailed look at your sinuses.

Sometimes, you may need to get a CT scan to look for more serious inflammation deep in your sinuses. It uses X-rays to produce a cross-section view of a particular part of the body.

Your doctor may also take a swab from inside your sinuses if they think you may have a fungal infection or bacterial infection.

For some people, allergies can cause congestion and other nasal symptoms. Your doctor may recommend that you get an allergy test, too.

Once you have a definite diagnosis, you can start on a treatment plan that will relieve your symptoms and maybe even keep them from coming back.