Are Sinus Infections Contagious?

A young man with a sinus infection with dark hair and a beige sweater closes his eyes as he holds a tissue to his nose with both hands.
Summary: Are Sinus Infections Contagious?
  • Sinusitis, or a sinus infection, impacts roughly 30 million adults in the U.S. per year.
  • A sinus infection happens when the tissue around the cavities becomes inflamed and swollen, or gets infected by bacteria, fungi, or a virus.
  • A sinus infection can be uncomfortable and sometimes painful, with symptoms including nasal congestion, a runny nose, sinus pressure, fatigue, fever, and headaches.
  • A sinus infection is caused by viruses, bacteria, or fungi. How contagious a sinus infection is will depend on its cause.
  • The four main types of sinus infections are acute sinus infection, subacute sinus infection, chronic sinus infection, and recurrent sinus infection.

According to the Sinus and Allergy Wellness Center’s research between 2019 and 2020, sinusitis, or a sinus infection, impacts approximately 30 million adults annually in the U.S. alone.

This article will tell you everything you need to know about sinusitis, what it is, how you get it, what its symptoms are, and how to treat it.

What Causes a Sinus Infection?

The sinuses are empty cavities located in the cheek area on either side of the nose, behind the nose, and in the forehead. These cavities are typically filled with air and are surrounded by a thin layer of mucus.

A sinus infection, also known as sinusitis, happens when the tissue around the cavities becomes inflamed and swollen, or gets infected by bacteria, fungi, or a virus.

A sinus infection can be uncomfortable and sometimes painful, with symptoms including nasal congestion, a runny nose, sinus pressure, fatigue, fever, and headaches.

Is a Sinus Infection Contagious?

How contagious a sinus infection is will depend on its cause.

If your sinus infection is caused by a virus, it’s possible to pass on that virus to another person. This could cause them to develop a cold, which could then develop into a sinus infection.

However, sinus infections aren’t always caused by a virus. Bacteria and fungi can also cause infections. If bacteria cause a sinus infection, then it’s not contagious.

Key Point: Sinus Infections vs. the Common Cold

It is easy for a sinus infection to be mistaken for the very contagious common cold.

Although the symptoms of the common cold and sinusitis are similar, it does not mean that they are equally contagious.

Fungal and bacterial sinus infections are less common when compared to viral sinus infections. If you have a sinus infection, it’s best to assume that it is viral and take as many precautions as you can, like self-isolating and resting.

Types of Sinus Infections

The four main types of sinus infections that people can experience, are:

Acute Sinus Infection

How long does an acute sinus infection last? This type of infection typically lasts for about four weeks or fewer.

You may experience difficulty breathing through your nose, throbbing facial pain or a headache, and the area around your eyes and face might feel swollen.

Acute sinus infections is usually caused by the common cold virus. Symptoms can often be relieved with home remedies.

Subacute Sinus Infection

This type of infection shares the symptoms of an acute infection.

How long does a subacute sinus infection last? Subacute sinus infections typically lasts for around 4-12 weeks and commonly occurs with bacterial sinus infections or seasonal allergies.

Chronic Sinus Infection

Chronic sinusitis often has similar symptoms to all the other sinus infection types. However, these symptoms are often heightened in severity.

How long does a chronic sinus infection last? This infection typically lasts for longer than 12 weeks and often occurs alongside persistent allergies or structural nasal problems.

Recurrent Sinus Infection

A recurrent sinus infection is usually a subacute or chronic sinus infection that reoccurs several times a year.

How is a Sinus Infection Transmitted?

Transmission of a sinus infection will depend on the cause of your infection. For example, if you have a sinus infection because of allergies or a deviated septum, you don’t have to worry about someone near you getting sick.

Common causes of a sinus infection include:

  • Viruses, such as those that cause cold or flu

  • Bacteria

  • Fungi

  • Nasal polyps or growths

  • Allergies

  • Deviated septum, which is when the wall between the nasal passages is crooked or off-center

If a virus causes your sinus infection, then it can be contagious.

If your sinus infection is the result of a virus, you can infect another person when you sneeze or cough near them.

You can also spread a viral infection by touching objects frequently shared among people, like doorknobs and kitchen utensils.

Sinus infections can also be caused by bacteria, but bacterial sinusitis is not contagious and you can't pass it on to others. Sinus infections caused by bacteria are less common. Bacteria are responsible for less than 2% of sinus infections.

Sinus infections can be caused by allergies and long-term exposure to pollution, too.

If you have a sinus infection, it's always a good idea to practice good hygiene and sneeze into your elbow to avoid potentially spreading it to other people.

A woman in an off-white sweater and red scarf coughs into her right hand as she holds her left hand up to her scarf near her chest.

Sinus Infection Symptoms

Sinus infection symptoms are very similar to the common cold. This makes them difficult to tell apart.

Symptoms of sinus infections include:

  • Pressure (in the sinus cavities, on the forehead, between the eyes, on the sides of the nose, in the upper jaw)

  • Bad breath

  • Loss of smell

  • Cloudy nasal discharge

  • Stuffiness of the nose

  • Cough

  • Postnasal drip

  • Sore throat

  • Tooth pain

  • Ear pain

  • Fatigue

  • Fever

Sinus infections caused by bacteria have a few additional symptoms, including:

  • Pus-like or thick nasal discharge

  • Symptoms lasting longer than a week

  • Facial pain

Some forms of sinusitis can simply cause swelling and irritation, such as those caused by slight blockages in the nasal passages or deformities of the sinus cavities.

Key Point: Seeking Care if You’re Unsure

If you feel you have any of these symptoms but are still unsure whether it’s a sinus infection or not, you can talk to a board-certified doctor or nurse practitioner, right from home. Head over to LifeMD to make a telehealth appointment.

Sinus Infection Treatments

Treatments for a sinus infection are mainly focused on symptom relief.

Some common treatments for sinus infections include:

  • Saline nasal irrigation and saline nasal sprays

  • Over-the-counter (OTC) decongestants

  • OTC pain relievers

  • OTC fever reducers

  • Antihistamines

  • Mucus thinners

  • Rest

For bacterial sinusitis, a doctor will usually prescribe a two-week course of antibiotics to kill the bacteria.

However, if someone is experiencing recurrent or chronic sinusitis, treatment will:

  • Aim to correct the underlying cause

  • Reduce how long the infections last

  • Focus on stopping the infection from recurring

For chronic sinus infection cases that don’t get better with treatment, a doctor may suggest surgery — for example, opening up the sinus passages to give them more room to drain.

Allergy shots may also be suggested if chronic sinus infections are caused by allergies.

If the OTC and symptom relief treatments don't work for your sinus infection, doctors may suggest the following:

  • Antibiotics (antibiotics only work for sinus infections caused by bacteria, not those caused by viruses)

  • Nasal corticosteroids and sprays

  • Nasal antihistamine sprays

  • Oral or injected corticosteroids

  • Immunotherapy

  • Sinus surgery

A man uses a nasal spray in his nostril.

When Should I See a Doctor About a Sinus Infection?

Anyone who has been experiencing pain and pressure in their sinuses for more than a week should see a doctor. If a persistent fever or cough does not improve with time, they should be addressed.

You should also see your doctor if you have multiple sinus infections within a 12-month period, or if your OTC medications don’t alleviate your symptoms.

You should call your doctor if you have:

  • A fever above 102°F (38.8°C)

  • Problems seeing or double vision

  • Swelling and redness around the eyes

  • A swollen forehead

  • A stiff neck

  • Confusion

  • Intense pain and headaches that don’t go away

  • Sinus symptoms that last more than 12 weeks

A sinus infection can in severe cases lead to other complications that need urgent medical treatment, such as:

  • Other infections, like osteomyelitis (bone infection) or cellulitis (skin infection)

  • Loss of smell that is permanent or temporary

  • Meningitis

Key Point: What is Meningitis?

Meningitis is the inflammation of the meninges, which are the three membranes that cover the brain and spinal cord.

Meningitis can occur when fluid surrounding the meninges becomes infected.

Meningitis can be caused by a viral or bacterial infection. Other causes may include:

  • Cancer
  • Chemical irritation
  • Fungi
  • Drug allergies

Where Can I Learn More About Sinus Infections?

With a common cold often being mistaken for a sinus infection, and vice versa, it’s important to understand the difference between the two and how to treat them.

If you’re currently experiencing some of the symptoms that we’ve mentioned in this article, you can schedule a telehealth appointment with a board-certified doctor or nurse practitioner.

LifeMD makes it easy to stay on top of your health because talking to a doctor, filling your prescriptions, getting your labs done—and more—are all easy and cost-effective. Come discover a healthcare solution built around you and your life.

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This article is intended for informational purposes only and should not be considered medical advice. Consult a healthcare professional or call a doctor in the case of a medical emergency.

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