Sinus allergies are a type of allergic reaction in the sinuses, which are the passages that run behind the cheeks, nose, and forehead, shown in light pink in the image to the right. Seasonal or constant environmental factors can be the cause of allergic symptoms, many of which mimic those of other conditions. In fact, many people confuse sinus allergies for a cold, sinus infection, or the flu. True prevention is typically hard, but there are ways to minimize exposure to allergens — the materials that cause allergic reactions. Additionally, there are natural, medication-based, and surgical treatments for sinus allergies.
Causes of Sinus Allergies
Sinus allergies are caused by allergens getting into the nose and sinus cavities. Allergens that commonly lead to sinus allergies include the following:
- Pollen — from both plants and trees
- Pet dander and pet hair
- Certain chemicals
- Dust mites and dust mite excretions
Inhaling these allergens leads to two results: an increased production of mucus, and the release of a compound called histamine. Though nasal mucus usually easily drains out of the nose, the increase in mucus makes it hard for the nose to drain properly. The release of histamine, which causes the nasal and sinus passages to swell up, only inhibits drainage further.
Unable to drain out, mucus will start backing up in the nose, which leads to two common symptoms: a stuffy feeling and a runny nose. Histamine also causes an itchy feeling, which is why many people with sinus allergies have itchy noses and eyes, and a tickle in the throat. The amount of allergen that it takes to start this process varies among people.
Though some allergens are always around, others are seasonal. The most common spring allergen is tree pollen, while the most common summer and fall allergens are grass pollen, ragweed, and mold. Allergens like dust and pet dander are usually in the air year-round, but allergies to them can sometimes be seasonal because of the way people act differently throughout the year. For instance, somebody with a pet that spends most of its time outdoors during the summer may start to experience pet dander allergies in the winter if he or she start keeping the pet inside.
Symptoms of Sinus Allergies
The most common sinus allergy symptoms are:
- A runny nose
- A stuffy nose
- Itchy eyes, nose, and throat
All result from the increased mucus production and narrowed nasal passages caused by inhaling allergens. They can also lead to many secondary symptoms:
- A sore throat — this is caused by all the extra mucus draining out and irritating the throat
- A decreased sense of smell
- A low fever
- Mild achy-ness
Not everyone will experience all of these symptoms, but clusters of these symptoms are usually a pretty good indication of having these allergies. On the other hand, many of these symptoms mirror the symptoms of other common illnesses so it's important to know what condition is causing them to get the proper treatment:
|Sinus Allergies||Cold||Flu||Sinusitis/Sinus Infection|
|Length of time?||As long as exposed to allergen.||A week to ten days.||Around four to ten days.||From less than a month to up to three months.|
|Fever||Sometimes — low-grade.||Sometimes, but usually in children.||Often||Often|
|Aches and pains||Often — mild.||Often — mild.||Often — severe.||Sometimes.|
Unlike a cold, the flu, or sinusitis, sinus allergies are not caused by a virus or bacteria. Antibiotics and antiviral medications are therefore usually ineffective. Leave sinus allergies untreated, however, and bacteria can develop in the backed-up mucus.
Preventing/Treating Sinus Allergies
Often, the best way to avoid sinus allergies is to stay away from the trigger allergen. This can be difficult, though, especially for those who are unclear as to what their trigger allergens are, who are allergic to many different things, or who are allergic to essentially unavoidable things. If the allergens are known, the best thing to do is to avoid being around them; for instance, someone who is allergic to grass pollen may want to try changing his exercise routine to be indoors, or someone who is allergic to mold may want to hire professional cleaning service to get rid of any mold in the home. If it's impossible to avoid allergens, then an allergy sufferer may want to proactively take some allergy medication before being exposed to a particular allergen.
There are five main categories of medication for preventing and treating allergies:
- Antihistamines — these medicines work to decrease the levels of histamine the body releases, which keeps the nasal passages from swelling up as much. Over-the-counter (OTC) antihistamines include Benadryl®, Claritin®, and Zyrtec®, among others. Prescription antihistamines include Clarinex® and Xyzal®, among others.
- Corticosteroids — these medicines also work to reduce swelling in the nasal passages. Commonly used corticosteroid medications include Flonase®, Nasonex®, and Advair®, which is an inhaled medication.
- Leukotriene Modifiers — these block the release of leukotrines, another chemical released in response to allergens. Zyflo® and Singulair® are two commonly used leukotriene modifiers.
- Mast Cell Stabilizers — these work by preventing certain cells called mast cells from releasing histamine. They are usually given to asthma sufferers, but can also be taken to prevent allergies. Common mast cell stabilizers include Opticrom® and Nasalcrom®.
- Decongestants — these shrink the blood vessels in the nasal passages to bring down swelling. Common OTC decongestants include Allegra-D® and Benadryl Allergy and Sinus®, while Semprex-D® is a common prescription decongestant.
Another option for treating allergies is immunotherapy, or allergy shots. This is usually not a preferred treatment, since it requires regular injections and does not work for everyone. It may, however, be good for those who cannot avoid their allergen triggers or those who can't take other types of medication.
It's important to discuss all medications with a medical professional before taking them, even the over-the-counter ones. Every type of allergy medication has the potential for causing side effects and shouldn't be taken without the advice of a health care professional.
There are also a number of non-medication-based treatments for sinus allergies. Two of the most common ones are steam inhalation and saline irrigation.
- Inhaling steam, particularly steam infused with things like mint, eucalyptus, or tea tree oil, can help soothe the nasal passages and encourage mucus to drain.
- Saline irrigation serves the same purpose, though it can be difficult for some people to adapt to. To do a saline irrigation, a person takes room temperature water with a little salt dissolved in it, and squirts or pours it into the nostrils to rinse out excess mucus. This method can be effective, but is not good for people with sinus infections, since it can spread bacteria around.
- Diet is touted by some as effective in treating or preventing sinus allergies, though this is not widely accepted in the medical field. Foods that are associated with exacerbating sinus allergies include dairy products; wheat products; and sugar, particularly refined sugars. Reducing or eliminating these foods, particularly during a sinus allergy attack, may be beneficial, but allergy sufferers should consult a health care professional for personalized advice.
- Herb and plant products are also said to be good for sinus allergies, including eucalyptus, mint, camphor, garlic, echinacea, bromelain, and horseradish or wasabi, among others. Those interested in herbal treatments for sinus allergies should consult with a doctor, herbalist, or naturopath.
Surgery is usually the last option when it comes to treating allergy problems because it is more invasive than other treatments and comes with a higher risk of complications. This type of treatment can be beneficial for those who have exhausted all other options, though. Most surgeries for sinus allergies involve making the nasal passages slightly larger, or opening up passages that have swollen shut or are abnormally small. Sinus surgery is typically done endoscopically, which means that a small instrument with a camera attached is inserted into the nasal passage to perform the surgery with as little trauma as possible.
The two main types of sinus surgery used to treat allergies are Balloon Sinuplasty® and laser sinus surgery. In Balloon Sinuplasty®, an instrument with a small, deflated balloon is threaded into swollen or small nasal passages, where the balloon is then inflated. This widens the nasal passages, and any backed up pus or mucus can be flushed out. Having wider nasal passages also helps prevent mucus from getting backed up in the future.
Laser sinus surgery is also done endoscopically, but it works differently than balloon-based surgeries. In this surgery, a doctor inserts a small instrument into the nose that burns off part of the nasal passages and also shrinks some of the underlying blood vessels that can cause inflammation if they get swollen. Though this type of surgery can be effective, it sometimes has to be done several times before it works, and can cause nosebleeds and congestion. As with all surgeries, people should consult with their doctor before deciding to have the surgery and should strictly follow any aftercare instructions.
A video illustration of the body reacting to allergies with more technical terminology:
A silent video with a good illustration of a blocked sinus and a demonstration of one type of sinus surgery:
A video on how to do a nasal irrigation with a neti pot:
- Allergy Action Plan — Detailed strategies for preventing allergies.
- eMedTV — More strategies for preventing allergies.
- National Institutes of Health — Information about treatments for sinus allergies.
- WebMD— Information about allergy treatments with medications and side effects listed.
- LarianMD — Information about allergy surgeries, including Balloon Sinuplasty®.