Sinus infections, also known as sinusitis, are very common. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), sinusitis affects around 31 million people in the United States each year.
But despite being so common, there is still a lot of confusion around sinus infections, especially when it comes to whether they are contagious.
In this article, we’ll break down everything you need to know about sinus infections, what causes them, if they can be spread from person to person, and how to prevent getting one.
Understanding Sinus Infections
Sinus infections occur when the cavities around your nasal passages, known as sinuses, become inflamed. The sinuses are air-filled pockets behind your cheeks, forehead, and eyes, and at the bridge of your nose. Each sinus is connected to your nasal cavity by a small, narrow passageway.
Normally, mucus is able to drain out of the sinuses and into the nasal cavity through these passageways. However, when the sinuses become inflamed due to a viral, bacterial, or fungal infection, the passageways can swell up and mucus can get trapped inside the sinuses. This causes pressure and pain in the face.
Some common symptoms of a sinus infection include:
➜ Facial pressure, pain, and fullness
➜ Thick, discolored nasal mucus or discharge
➜ Loss of smell and taste
➜ Congestion and blockage
➜ Fatigue and generally feeling unwell
Sinus infections can be acute (lasting less than four weeks) or chronic (lasting three months or longer). Acute sinusitis often develops after a viral upper respiratory infection (like a cold) or allergy flare-up. Chronic sinusitis is more likely to be caused by structural issues in the sinuses or a persistent immune response.
What Causes Sinus Infections?
There are several potential causes of sinus infections:
The viruses that cause colds, flu, and other upper respiratory infections can trigger sinus inflammation by spreading to and irritating the sinus cavities. This leads to acute viral sinusitis.
Up to 2% of viral sinus infections can be complicated by a bacterial infection. The bacteria continue to inflame the sinuses even after the virus has cleared. Some of the most common culprits include Streptococcus pneumoniae, Haemophilus influenzae, and Moraxella catarrhalis.
Fungi like mold and Candida can cause a sinus infection, especially in people with weakened immune systems or diabetes. The fungi irritate the sinus membranes.
Allergic rhinitis causes inflammation that can block the sinus drainage passages. Allergens like pollen, pet dander, and dust mites can all trigger allergic sinusitis.
A deviated septum, nasal polyps, cysts, tumors, and other anatomical problems can obstruct mucus drainage. This can lead to repeated sinus infections.
Exposure to irritants like cigarette smoke, chemicals, and air pollution can inflame the sinus linings.
Are Sinus Infections Contagious?
The short answer is no, sinus infections themselves are not contagious. Let’s explore this more:
While the viral, bacterial, or fungal infections that cause sinusitis can be contagious, the resulting inflammation in the sinuses themselves cannot spread between people. For example, you can catch a cold from someone sneezing near you, but you cannot catch sinusitis. The sinus infection develops later due to your body’s response to the virus.
The pathogens that trigger sinus infections can be spread through:
Airborne respiratory droplets (coughing, sneezing)
Shared surfaces and objects
Contact with nasal mucus
However, these germs usually need to directly enter your nasal passages to cause an infection. Once sinusitis has developed in someone, the sinus inflammation itself is localized and cannot directly spread.
In rare cases, people who are severely immunocompromised may be vulnerable to bacterial forms of sinusitis spreading through the bloodstream. But this type of dissemination is very uncommon.
So while the root infectious causes can be contagious, sinusitis itself is not once it has developed. You also cannot spread your own sinus infection back to others. Proper handwashing and hygiene will prevent transmission of the responsible viruses and bacteria.
How Can You Prevent Sinus Infections?
To help avoid developing sinusitis in the first place:
➔ Wash your hands frequently and disinfect shared surfaces and objects to prevent viral and bacterial transmission
➔ Avoid close contact with anyone showing signs of respiratory illness
➔ Get an annual flu shot to prevent influenza-induced sinusitis
➔ Ventilate indoor spaces and avoid irritants like cigarette smoke
➔ Use a humidifier at home and while sleeping to keep your sinuses moist
➔ Stay well hydrated to thin mucus secretions
➔ Manage allergies properly with medication and air filters
➔ See an allergist to identify potential triggers like dust mites
➔ Follow sinus rinses or sprays recommended by your doctor
➔ Take antibiotics as prescribed for bacterial sinusitis
➔ Use nasal steroid sprays as directed to reduce inflammation
➔ Avoid flying when congested, as pressure changes can block sinuses
➔ See an ENT specialist if chronic sinusitis persists despite treatment
While sinus infections are very common, they are not contagious in and of themselves. The viruses, bacteria, or fungi that trigger sinus inflammation can be spread from person to person. However, once sinusitis has developed, the infection stays localized in that person’s sinuses and cannot spread on its own. Practicing good hygiene and addressing any underlying factors causing chronic sinus problems are the best ways to avoid getting and transmitting sinus infections.
No, you cannot directly catch sinusitis from another person. However, you can catch the virus or bacterial infection that causes someone’s sinusitis. Once you have that infection, it may then trigger sinus inflammation.
You do not need to fully isolate from someone with sinusitis, since their sinus inflammation itself is not contagious. But it’s reasonable to avoid very close contact until their infection has cleared to prevent transmitting any viral/bacterial cause.
As long as you practice good respiratory hygiene like covering coughs/sneezes and washing hands regularly, going to work with sinusitis is okay since it poses minimal transmission risk. Avoid very close contact with colleagues and let your employer know you have sinusitis.
Kissing presents a low risk of transmitting the underlying viral/bacterial infection that caused sinusitis. However, the sinusitis itself cannot be spread through kissing or other close contact.