Having a nasty head cold is something we all have to put up with now and then. We may feel a bit under the weather, but if a head cold develops into full-blown sinusitis, we’re likely to feel distinctly more miserable. Sinusitis is one of the UK’s most common health conditions, affecting 9 million people a year. Although it’s not generally regarded as serious or life-threatening, sinusitis can have a significant impact on sufferers’ quality of life.
Like a cold, one of the key symptoms is a feeling of being ‘bunged up’ and having difficulty breathing through the nose. Where sinusitis differs is that it also causes a sensation of pressure behind the eyes and forehead. This pressure can become painful and lead to severe headaches or general facial pain. Other symptoms include loss of the sense of smell, fatigue and even halitosis.
So what causes it? The sinuses are lined with a thin coating of mucus, which filters out bacteria and other harmful substances. This is why our immune system creates more mucus when we have a cold or an infection. Sinusitis occurs when the mucus doesn’t drain properly, often because it has become too thick or there is too much of it. This build-up is what causes the sensation of ‘stuffiness’ and is often the result of a cold or a virus.
In most cases, the condition is acute, which means that it should only last a week or two and is likely to clear up by itself. If your symptoms are relatively mild, there are a number of things you can do to help alleviate them. Filling a bowl with hot water, adding a couple of drops of menthol or eucalyptus oil and then inhaling the steam is a good first step, but only provides temporary relief. Another option is paying a visit to your local pharmacist, who will be able to advise you on over-the-counter remedies. These usually take the form of decongestant sprays, which help to open up the airways, and painkillers to relieve headaches and facial pain.
If none of these work and symptoms persist, it’s time to visit your GP. In most cases you will be prescribed antibiotics, which should speed up recovery. If the sinusitis is caused by a virus they’re unlikely to solve the problem, however, so it may just be a case of waiting for it to pass.
In instances where sinusitis lasts more than a few weeks and shows no signs of improving, the condition is classed as chronic. If you find yourself in this situation then it’s very important to go back to your GP. Around 20% of cases don’t respond to medication, so your doctor may refer you to an Ear, Nose and Throat (ENT) specialist to discuss further treatment options. Although surgical intervention is considered safe and low risk, it tends to be a last resort and only for people who have recurrent sinusitis.
If you do decide to go down the surgical route, there are two main procedures to choose from. A relative newcomer is Balloon Sinuplasty, which involves inserting a tiny balloon catheter into the nasal cavity. The balloon is then slowly inflated, which causes it to gently push against the walls of the sinus and widen the airway, making it easier to breathe. It also helps to restore the normal drainage function, which makes the problem less likely to recur. This innovative technique is only minimally invasive, so the recovery time is very short. Patients can often go back to work the next day, although there may be a certain amount of pain and swelling.
Another, more common, surgical procedure is Endoscopic Sinus Surgery (ESS). A small camera is inserted into the nose, which enables the surgeon to see inside the nasal cavity and assess the level of blockage. Tiny instruments are then used to remove small sections of bone and tissue from inside the nose, which has the effect of permanently widening the sinus opening. This relieves the sensation of pressure that is so common in sinusitis sufferers, because it gives the mucus more space to drain and also makes it much easier to breathe. Recovery time is slightly longer with this technique because it’s more invasive and does involve the removal of tissue. There is likely be a certain amount of post-operative pain and bleeding, but this will pass after a few days.
The fact that sinusitis is so common has its benefits because it means that there’s a wide range of treatment options, from over-the-counter medication to surgical techniques, so you don’t need to suffer in silence. As with all health concerns, a visit to your GP is wise if your symptoms do not improve or if you simply wish to chat through the various options available to you.