What Happens If A Sinus Infection Goes Untreated?

Dealing with sinusitis can be challenging. You may find it difficult to sleep, exercise, and eat due to nasal congestion. Sinus headaches, tooth pain, and fatigue only make things worse. These symptoms occur when fluid builds up in the hollow spaces between your eyes, in your forehead, and behind your cheekbones, causing an infection. Individuals with a deviated septum, allergic rhinitis, or nasal polyps are more likely to get sinusitis, notes WebMD. It's estimated that around 35 million Americans develop this condition at least once a year.

Acute sinusitis lasts anywhere between two and four weeks, according to WebMD. Chronic sinusitis, on the other hand, can last longer than 12 weeks. Some people are diagnosed with subacute sinusitis, which lasts up to three months. Acute sinusitis often goes away on its own, notes the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai (ISMMS). In more severe cases, doctors may prescribe antibiotics, corticosteroids, or allergy shots. Fungal infections of the sinuses generally require surgery.

Most cases of sinusitis can be managed with medications and self-care measures, such as steam inhalation, says ISMMS. However, it's possible to experience complications. If left untreated, sinusitis can spread to your brain or bones, warns WebMD. 

Untreated sinus infections can cause serious complications

A sinus infection may not seem like a big deal, but it's important to know when to seek help. The experts at ISMMS recommend seeing a doctor if your symptoms don't clear within 10 to 14 days. Likewise, you should contact a healthcare provider if you have a fever, severe headaches, or vision problems.

Untreated sinusitis can cause serious complications ranging from meningitis to orbital cellulitis (via the Ear, Nose, Throat, and Allergy Specialist). Meningitis is inflammation of the tissue covering your brain and spinal cord. If left unaddressed, it may cause seizures, neck stiffness, nausea, severe headaches, fever, and increased sensitivity to light. Meanwhile, orbital cellulitis refers to eye socket inflammation or infection, and may lead to extreme eye pain and vision loss.

A sinus infection may also spread to the tear sac or to the frontal bone. In rare cases, it can result in eye muscle paralysis, lethargy, high-grade fever, and coma. Sinus surgery specialist Dr. Garrett Bennett warns that untreated sinusitis may also worsen asthma and affect nasal function. 

How to deal with a sinus infection and when to seek help

Despite the risks described above, you shouldn't reach for antibiotics from day one. Family medicine doctor Daniel Merenstein told The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) that most healthcare providers overprescribe these medications, which can increase your risk of infection with drug-resistant bacteria.

The general recommendation is to use ibuprofen or other over-the-counter pain relievers for acute sinusitis treatment. Saltwater washes, decongestant sprays, nasal steroid sprays may help, too. "Even if you're really sick and have a high fever, it's still OK to initially observe without antibiotics because all the data from more than a dozen trials don't really show that there's any greater benefit," says otolaryngology specialist Richard Rosenfeld (via WSJ).

If you're dealing with chronic sinusitis, your doctor may recommend nasal steroid sprays, antihistamines, or anti-inflammatory drugs, notes the Cleveland Clinic. The treatment isn't too different from that prescribed for acute sinus infections, but you'll also need to address the root cause of your condition. For example, you may have to undergo surgery if your symptoms are due to structural problems affecting the sinuses. Meanwhile, Cleveland Clinic suggests trying facial massages to ease the pain and discomfort associated with sinusitis.