What are the sinuses?

The sinuses are hollow pockets of air in the facial bones.  If you touch your cheek or forehead, the bone there feels like hard, solid bone.  But these bones are actually hollow and contain the sinuses.

Most people have four sinuses on each side of the face.  The names of theses sinuses are:

  • Maxillary sinus
  • Ethmoid sinus
  • Frontal sinus
  • Sphenoid sinus

What happens when someone has chronic sinusitis?

Chronic sinusitis is when someone has irritation, swelling, or infection in the sinuses. For it to be considered chronic, sinusitis has to last for more than 12 weeks.

Most of us don’t think about our sinuses when the sinuses are healthy. But when someone has chronic sinusitis, it can be hard to ignore the symptoms. People struggling with chronic sinusitis have symptoms like nasal congestion, facial pressure, sinus pressure, nasal drainage, and a decreased sense of smell.

In the past, it was thought that chronic sinusitis was caused by sinus infections. Now, we know that infections are just one possible cause of chronic sinusitis. Many people don’t have an infection. Instead, they have inflammation in their sinuses. No matter what the cause is, having chronic sinusitis can make someone feel miserable. It can almost be like having symptoms of a cold that never go away. Chronic sinusitis affects millions of people in our country every year.

How is sinusitis diagnosed?

Diagnosing sinusitis is often not easy. Making an accurate diagnosis requires a few different pieces of information. Your doctor needs to review the types of symptoms you are having. They also need to see inside the nose to look for findings that show inflammation or infection in the sinuses.

It is usually easy to understand the types of symptoms someone is having. The hard part is being able to look inside the nasal and sinus areas. The best ways to look at these areas are with nasal endoscopy and sinus CT scans.

Nasal endoscopy is what allows an ENT doctor to get a detailed examination of the inside of the nose.  The procedure is done in the office and usually does not cause much discomfort. Sometimes, patients feel like they have a little tickle inside the nose when the procedure is being performed, but it is rare to have pain. The doctor uses a nasal endoscope to look inside the nostril. The endoscope is a tiny flashlight that also has a little camera at its tip.

A sinus CT scan is also very helpful in diagnosing sinusitis. The CT scan is like a specialized X-ray of the sinus areas. It provides high resolution images of the sinuses, and this allows your doctor to look for chronic sinusitis. The CT can show things like sinus thickening, sinus polyps, or sinus fluid.

Fortunately, most people with sinus problems can find relief.  Sometimes, the best way to get relief is to use the right combination of medications.  Things like sinus rinses can also help.  In some cases, the sinus issues are severe enough that medications and things like sinus rinses don’t offer enough relief.  In these cases, treatments like sinus surgery can be helpful.

Read more information about sinusitis at the Journal of the American Medical Association’s Patient Page on Adult Sinusitis.

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