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What Happens if you Let a Sinus Infection go Untreated?

In most cases, sinus infection goes away on its own. However, if it lingers or keeps rearing its ugly head and you still keep overlooking it, a sinus infection can lead to potentially grave complications.

The possibility for serious health risks stems from the fact that your sinuses are too close to other parts of your body, especially your brain and eyes.

Here’s a list of some important complications that can arise as a result of an untreated sinus infection.

1. Reduced or Complete Loss of the Sense of Smell

Untreated sinus infection can diminish or completely deprive you of your sense of smell (called anosmia). This can be due to inflammation and blockage of your nasal passages, or damage to the olfactory nerve.

Though the loss of smell from a sinus infection is often transient, it can be permanent in severe cases, wreaking havoc on the quality of your life and overall wellbeing. 

2. Difficulty Breathing

Sinusitis causes nasal and sinus congestion, which can make it difficult for you to breathe through your nose. If the inflammation gets better and the blocked sinuses start to drain, the breathing will become easier.

Difficulty breathing from a long-standing sinus infection can also make you feel fatigued, as it interferes with the delivery of enough oxygen to your body.

3. Inflammation of your Voice Box, aka Larynx (Laryngitis)

Untreated sinusitis can cause the thickened mucus to continuously drip down the back of your throat, which, over time, can irritate your voice box and contribute to dry cough and hoarseness.

4. Dacryocystitis

It is an inflammation or infection of the tear sac usually due to blockage of your tear duct. Long-standing sinus infection can spread to your eyes, including your tear sac — a tiny chamber draining your tears, located in the inner corner of your eye. Tears drain through this sac as they exit the surface of your eyes.

Dacryocystitis causes tearing, along with pain, redness, and swelling in the inner corner of the affected eye and warrants antibiotic treatment.

5. Orbital cellulitis/abscess

Another rare but serious complication of an untreated sinus infection is an inflammation or infection of the eye socket (aka orbit) — a condition called orbital cellulitis. This sight-and-life-threatening condition may arise because of the direct spread of infection from your sinuses via their thin walls, or as a repercussion of dacryocystitis.

Infection of the ethmoid sinuses — that lie between your nose and eyes — is more likely to spread to your eye socket because of their thin walls.

While this condition typically affects kids and young adults, a delay in diagnosis and treatment is a threat to both vision and life in all age groups. Untreated orbital infection can spread to the protective coverings around your brain and spinal cord as well as past your brain.

Orbital cellulitis causes fever, along with extreme pain, swelling, redness, and bulging of your eyelid, and possibly eyebrow and cheek. It may also lead to the formation of pus inside the eye socket.

Orbital cellulitis requires prompt hospitalization and may even necessitate surgery if the response to appropriate antibiotics has been poor within 24-48 hours.

6. Cavernous sinus thrombosis

When the sinus infection spreads to your brain, your body’s defense mechanisms create a clot in an attempt to contain the infection.

Though a very rare complication of chronic sinusitis, cavernous sinus thrombosis is a threat to life when it does emerge. It is a condition in which a blood clot forms inside the cavernous sinus — a hollow space at the base of the brain that functions to drain blood from your brain and face.

Cavernous sinus thrombosis presents with:

  •   a sharp, severe headache that worsens progressively, and often occurs with tearing
  •   facial pain, more localized around your eyes
  •   high-grade fever
  •   double vision
  •   paralysis of eye muscles, resulting in an inability to move your eyes or causing your eyelids to droop
  •   a bulging and swollen eyelid
  •   loss of vision
  •   seizures and death (in severe cases)

The cornerstone of treatment for cavernous sinus thrombosis is early and aggressive antibiotic therapy.

7. Meningitis

Left untreated, a sinus infection has the potential to spread to your meninges (the protective coverings around your brain and spinal cord), causing them to become inflamed — a condition called meningitis.

Meningitis gives rise to the following signs and symptoms:

  •   Sudden, high-grade fever
  •   Neck stiffness
  •   Extremely severe headache, often accompanied by nausea and vomiting
  •   Unusual sensitivity to bright light
  •   Drowsiness and lethargy
  •   Seizures

The condition requires intervention by a neurologist and is diagnosed by its clinical signs and symptoms. Meningitis is confirmed by withdrawing the clear fluid that bathes your brain and spinal cord — a procedure called lumbar puncture, in addition to imaging modalities, such as CT and MRI scans.

While the early institution of antibiotic therapy can help address the problem, sinusitis complicated by meningitis may still pose a serious threat.

8. Subdural Abscess

A chronic sinus infection can often lead to the collection of pus (aka abscess) in a potential space between the outer and middle layers of your meninges (the subdural space), defining a condition known as the subdural abscess.

Subdural abscess gives rise to signs and symptoms that resemble meningitis, along with changes in mental status, such as confusion and irritability. The condition progresses rapidly and calls for prompt diagnosis, treatment, and often surgical drainage to stave off coma and death from the rapidly rising pressure within your brain.

9. Frontal bone osteomyelitis

The frontal bone is a bone of your skull that occupies the forehead region. Osteomyelitis is an infection of a bone. Frontal bone osteomyelitis (aka Pott’s puffy tumor) is a potential local complication of a sinus infection of the paired frontal sinuses, located in the frontal bones above your eyebrows.

When infection from your frontal sinuses extend to the bones in which they lie, signs and symptoms that mimic meningitis arise. However, it’s imperative to distinguish between the two conditions, as lumbar puncture cannot be done with frontal bone infection due to the growing pressure within your brain.

Thanks to the antibiotic era, owing to which we rarely see cases of frontal bone osteomyelitis today. The key is timely diagnosis and treatment.

10. Brain abscess

A brain abscess is a localized collection of pus within your brain substance. It occurs because of the direct spread of infection from your paranasal sinuses.

As is obvious, brain abscess is a potentially lethal condition that can lead to coma and death if not addressed right away.

Seek Consultation

Untreated sinus infection can take a heavy toll on your wellbeing. The good news is that with advancements in medical and surgical treatments today, almost all complications of sinusitis are preventable.

Hence, our experts at the Ear, Nose, Throat & Allergy Specialist, recommend seeking treatment if you have symptoms of sinusitis lasting longer than ten days, or symptoms that keep coming back. These symptoms include fever, runny or blocked nose, congestion, facial pain, and tenderness.

A plethora of medical and lifestyle options are available to help address a sinus infection. Moreover, if conventional measures don’t help, our experts at the ENT & Allergy Specialist are also adept at performing a cutting-edge procedure to widen blocked sinuses, known as balloon sinuplasty.  

Balloon Sinuplasty

The steps of this procedure are as follows:

  •   You’ll be given medicine to relax.
  •   We first insert a thin, flexible tube known as an endoscope into your nose. This tube has a camera and light on its end, which is used to visualize the sinus cavity.
  •   Another small tube termed as a catheter with a balloon at its end is next advanced over the guiding endoscope.
  •   Our specialists then open up the inflamed sinuses by inflating the balloon.
  •   The balloon is finally deflated and taken out.  

The success rates of a balloon sinuplasty are well over 90%. Most patients report a long-term, significant improvement in their sinus symptoms.

Balloon sinuplasty is minimally invasive (doesn’t involve any cutting) and doesn’t require placing a packing inside after the surgery. Thus, the recovery from the procedure is also relatively easy and quick.

Balloon sinuplasty has minimal to no risks, and in the majority of cases, this procedure helps you get off all your anti-allergy and steroid medicines as well as antibiotics that you might be taking for very long.

If you’re experiencing a sinusitis flare-up or are having symptoms of a chronic sinus infection, get one-on-one consultation by booking an appointment with one of our experts at the Ear, Nose, Throat & Allergy Specialist.