By RICK COUSINS Correspondent

Weather patterns can sweep in copious amounts of pollen and smoke here each spring, thereby raising your risk for a seasonal sinus attack. WebMD notes that 37 million Americans will suffer along these lines annually, leading to some $5.7 billion in related costs and lost income. Since there’s no vaccine and little chance of avoiding the triggers, what’s a Gulf Coast resident to do when sinus pain and congestion strike?

Dr. Julie McKee, a distinguished teaching professor at the University of Texas Medical Branch, said that the first step is not to rush to the doctor, demanding an antibiotic.

“Sinus infections are a common problem,” she said. “However, not all nasal congestion is appropriately treated with antibiotics.

“Allergies are a common cause of nasal congestion and sometimes people confuse seasonal allergy flares with a sinus infection.

“The vast majority of sinus infections are caused by viruses and will not improve with the use of antibiotics.”

What’s worse, unnecessary use of bacteria-fighting medications can contribute to a growing public health crisis.
“Using antibiotics for viral sinus infections can lead to antibiotic resistance which is becoming a significant problem in our country,” McKee said.

“The color of mucous is not always indicative of a bacterial infection. Some viral infections cause yellow or green mucous and mucous changes color the longer it has been in the nasal passages.”

So, doctors now recommend antibiotics only when sinus symptoms have been present for at least 10-14 days.
What else helps? The drug store shelves for colds/flu/sinus are filled with possibilities: decongestants (except for those with high blood pressure), expectorants, cough syrups, medicated lozenges, nose sprays and the most recent addition to the allergy arsenal: the Neti pot. It’s an import from the traditional medicine of India which allows you to flush your sinuses with salt water.

“Nasal saline washes are very helpful for all causes of nasal congestion,” McKee said. “They help with allergies by washing away the particles which are causing the inflammation. They are also helpful for congestion caused by viruses and bacteria.”

And how can you be sure that you actually have a sinus infection? The Centers for Disease Control lists the following symptoms as indicators: headache, stuffy or runny nose, loss of the sense of smell, facial pain or pressure, postnasal drip (mucus drips down the throat from the nose), sore throat, fever, coughing, fatigue and, believe it or not, bad breath.
Most such infections are self-limiting and not contagious, but a few can develop into serious and even life-threatening diseases including pleurisy and pneumonia. So the CDC has a second list of symptoms that should lead to a doctor’s appointment. These include a fever of 100.4 degrees or higher, symptoms that get worse or last for longer than 10 days or repeated sinus infections which occur in serial fashion, one after another.

Alternative medicine has suggestions for dealing with sinusitis as well. Acupuncture, native honey and breathing warm steam are all options. But neither traditional nor alternative health practitioners can yet offer a cure for the annual round of sniffing and coughing that season’s sinus brings our way each spring.

Editor’s note: This is part two of a two-part sinus series.
Rick Cousins can be reached at