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When Your Child Has Sinusitis

Sinuses are hollow spaces in the bones of the face within the cheekbones, around the eyes, and behind the nose. Healthy sinuses constantly make and drain mucus. This helps keep the nasal passages clean and free of bacteria. There are some underlying problems that may keep sinuses from draining correctly. This can lead to sinus inflammation and infection (sinusitis). Sinusitis can be acute or chronic. Acute sinusitis comes on suddenly, often after a cold or flu. When your child has acute sinusitis at least 3 times in a year, it's called recurrent acute sinusitis. When acute sinusitis lasts longer than 12 weeks, it’s called chronic. Chronic sinusitis is often caused by allergies or a physical blockage in the nose.

Front view of child’s face showing normal sinus anatomy on one side and inflamed sinuses on the other.

What causes sinusitis?

These problems can lead to sinusitis:

  • Upper respiratory infections.  A cold or flu can cause the sinuses and nasal linings to swell. This blocks the sinus openings, allowing mucus to back up. The pooled mucus can then become infected with germs (bacteria or viruses).

  • Allergic reactions. Sensitivity to substances in the environment, such as pollen, dust, or mold causes swelling inside the sinuses. The swelling prevents mucus from draining.

  • Obstructions in the nose. A polyp or deviated septum can cause sinusitis that doesn’t go away. A polyp is a sac of swollen tissue, often the result of infection or, more commonly, allergies. It can block the tiny opening where most of the sinuses drain. It can even grow large enough to block the nasal passage. The septum is the wall of tough connective tissue (cartilage) that divides the nasal cavity in half. When this wall is crooked (deviated), it can prevent the sinuses from draining normally.

What are the symptoms of sinusitis?

  • Thick discolored drainage from the nose

  • Nasal congestion

  • Pain and pressure around the eyes, nose, cheeks, or forehead

  • Headache

  • Cough

  • Thick mucus draining down the back of the throat (postnasal drainage)

  • Fever

  • Loss of smell

How is sinusitis diagnosed?

Your child’s healthcare provider will ask about your child’s health history and do a physical exam. During the exam, the provider checks your child’s ears, nose, and throat and looks for signs of soreness near the sinuses. That may be all that is usually done with acute sinusitis. 

With recurrent acute sinusitis or chronic sinusitis, your child may need tests to check for bacteria, allergies, or polyps. Your child may also need X-rays or CT scans. In some cases, your child may be referred to an ear, nose, and throat healthcare provider specialist (ENT or otolaryngologist). If necessary to determine a diagnosis, this provider may use a long, thin tool (endoscope) to better examine the sinus openings.

How is acute sinusitis treated?

Acute sinusitis may get better on its own. When it doesn’t, your child’s healthcare provider may prescribe:

  • Antibiotics. If your child’s sinuses are infected with bacteria, antibiotics are given to kill the bacteria. If after 3 to 5 days, your child's symptoms haven't improved, the healthcare provider may try a different antibiotic.

  • Allergy medicines. For sinusitis caused by allergies, antihistamines and other allergy medicines can reduce swelling. Only use allergy medicines if recommended by your child's healthcare provider.

Don't use over-the-counter decongestant nasal sprays to treat sinusitis. They may make the problem worse.

How is recurrent acute sinusitis treated?

Recurrent acute sinusitis is also treated with antibiotic and allergy medicines. Your child's healthcare provider may refer you to an ENT for testing and treatment.

How is chronic sinusitis treated? 

Your child’s healthcare provider may try:

  • Referral. Your child's healthcare provider may want you to see a specialist in ear, nose, and throat conditions.

  • Antibiotics. Your child may need to take antibiotic medicine for a longer time. Antibiotics are only used for bacterial infections.

  • Inhaled corticosteroid medicines. Nasal sprays or drops with steroids are often prescribed.

  • Other medicines. Nasal sprays with antihistamines and decongestants, saltwater (saline) sprays or drops, or mucolytics or expectorants (to loosen and clear mucus) may be prescribed.

  • Allergy shots (immunotherapy). If your child has nasal allergies, shots may help reduce your child’s reaction to allergens, such as pollen, dust mites, or mold.

  • Surgery. Surgery for chronic sinusitis is a choice, although it's not done very often in children.

If antibiotics are prescribed

Sinus infections caused by bacteria may be treated with antibiotics. To use them safely:

  • It may take 3 to 5 days for your child’s symptoms to start to improve. If your child doesn’t get better after this time, call your child’s healthcare provider.

  • Be sure your child takes all the medicine, even if they feel better. Otherwise, the infection may come back if it is not completely cleared.

  • Be sure that your child takes the medicine as directed. For example, some antibiotics should be taken with food.

  • Ask your child’s healthcare provider or pharmacist what side effects the medicine may cause and what to do about them. Or when they should be reported.

Caring for your child

Many children with sinusitis get better with rest and the following care:

  • Fluids. A glass of water or juice every hour or 2 is a good rule. Fluids help thin mucus, allowing it to drain more easily. Fluids also help prevent dehydration.

  • Saline wash. This helps keep the sinuses and nose moist. Ask your child's healthcare provider for directions.

  • Warm compresses.  Apply a warm, moist towel to your child’s nose, cheeks, and eyes to help relieve facial pain.

Preventing sinusitis

Colds, flu, and allergies can lead to sinusitis. To help prevent these problems:

  • Teach your child to wash their hands correctly and often. It’s the best way to prevent most infections.

  • Make sure your child eats nutritious meals and drinks plenty of fluids.

  • Keep your child away from people who are sick, especially during cold and flu season.

  • Ask your child’s healthcare provider about allergy testing. - Take steps to help your child stay away from allergens to which they are sensitive. Your child’s healthcare provider can give you more information.

  • Don’t let anyone smoke around your child.

Tips for correct handwashing

Use clean, running water (warm or cold) and soap. Work up a good lather.

  • Clean the whole hand, under the nails, between fingers, and up the wrists.

  • Wash for at least  seconds (as long as it takes to say the ABCs or sing Happy Birthday twice). Don’t just wipe—scrub well.

  • Rinse well. Let the water run down the fingers, not up the wrists.

  • In a public restroom, use a paper towel to turn off the faucet and open the door.

What are long-term concerns?

It’s important to find and treat the underlying cause of sinusitis in children. In rare cases, the infection from sinusitis can spread to the eyes or brain. If your child has allergies or asthma, talk with your healthcare provider about treatment choices. Tell your child’s provider if your child gets more colds or flu than normal.

When to call your child's healthcare provider

Call your child's healthcare provider right away if any of the following occur:

  • Your child’s symptoms get worse or new symptoms develop

  • Symptoms don’t get better within 3 to 5  days after starting antibiotics

  • A skin rash, hives, or wheezing develops. These could signal an allergic reaction

  • Call 911 if your child has trouble breathing.

Online Medical Reviewer: Jessica Gotwals RN BSN MPH
Online Medical Reviewer: Rita Sather RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Sumana Jothi MD
Date Last Reviewed: 11/1/2022
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