Fall is here! For many, this is considered one of the best times of the year – the leaves are turning, the weather is starting to cool, Starbucks has released its seasonal drinks and the change in seasons means that the holidays are just around the corner.
For others, the falling of leaves means an increase in allergies and chronic headaches caused by blocked sinuses – a potentially miserable part of the year for serious allergy sufferers.
So what are sinus headaches and how do they differ from other types of headaches?
Sinusitis is an inflammation or swelling of the tissues which line the sinuses, most often caused by a bacterial infection, viruses or mold that cause the sinuses to become blocked or filled with fluid and germs.
Other causes of sinus blockage can include the common cold, nasal polyps, a deviated septum, a tooth infection or allergies.
There are two types of sinusitis: acute and chronic.
Acute sinusitis typically lasts between two to four weeks and comes with symptoms associated with a cold or allergies, including a runny nose or nasal congestion, a thick yellow/green discharge down the back of the throat (postnasal drip) or out of the nose, sore throat, difficulty breathing or pain and pressure around the eyes, forehead, nose, ears or cheekbones, dental pain, coughing, a reduced sense of taste or smell, and headaches.
Chronic sinusitis is a swelling or inflammation of the sinuses that lasts 12-weeks or longer, making it difficult to breathe and causing regular pain and pressure around the face. Chronic sinusitis can be caused an infection, nasal polyps or in some cases, by a deviated nasal septum.
Symptoms of chronics sinusitis:
- Congestion or runny nose
- Feeling of pressure or facial fullness – typically paired with pain around the affected sinuses
- Thick discharge from the nose or down the back of the throat
- Sore throat
- Dental pain – particularly around the upper jaw
- Reduced sense of smell
- Pain or swelling sensation in or around the the ears
You should contact an ENT specialist if you experience sinus problems & symptoms lasting longer than four weeks.
If you are suffering from acute or chronic sinusitis, symptoms can be treated with doctor prescribed medication, over-the-counter meds or at-home solutions that include:
- Using a humidifier while sleeping to help warm and moisten the air
- An over-the-counter decongestant spray or pill (not exceeding the recommended length and amount of use)
- Saline nose sprays or drops
- Warm compress over the affected area(s)
Antibiotics – talk to your doctor about the proper antibiotics to help alleviate your symptoms. Allergy sufferers may be prescribed an antihistamine or anti-fungalmedicine if a fungus or mold is to blame.
Do I Need Surgery?
Surgery is a common solution if the infected sinus or sinuses cannot be cleared up with antibiotics or if the problems are being prolonged by structural problems. If this is the case, your ENT specialist may suggest one of several procedures to help clear the blockage:
- Endoscopic surgery – A less invasive surgical procedure used to remove blockages in the sinuses with the use of an endoscope – a medical instrument that uses a camera to allow surgeons to see inside the sinus tissues. Endoscopic surgery is performed through the nostrils rather than large incisions through the skin, meaning a quick surgery that will allow patients shorter recovery time.5
Endoscopic surgery improves symptoms in about 90 out of 100 people.1
- Sinus surgery – Traditional sinus surgery can be the answer if there have been complications with the sinus infection or endoscopic surgery is not enough to remove the blockage. Sinus surgery is more invasive than endoscopic procedures and involves making an opening in the sinus through the inside of the mouth or through the face. 2
Other in-office procedures your specialist might recommend can include:
- A turbinectomy, which shrinks the swollen tissues of the nose 3, or
- Balloon Sinuplasty (BSP), a less invasive procedure which opens up swollen sinuses, allowing them to drain mucus more freely – involving no cutting of the bone or nasal tissue.4
Why are sinus issues worse in the fall?
So, now that we’ve given a bit of background on sinusitis and the possible treatments, let’s get back to the timeliness of this topic.
Springtime still dominates the bad allergy seasons, but fall is also an unfortunate time of the year for allergy sufferers. So, why do some symptoms seem to escalate in the fall months?
Fall is a particularly bad time of the year for ragweed, a North American member of the daisy family known for producing large amounts of pollen which fills the air between mid-August through the end of October.
For some people who are allergic to ragweed, certain fruits and vegetables, including bananas, melon, and zucchini, can also cause symptoms. – WebMD
The second biggest fall allergy culprit is mold. Mold loves moisture and those piles of autumn leaves that fill your back gardens or even the gutters are ideal breeding grounds for mold spores that can plague your allergies.
Number three? – Dust mites. Dust mites are very prevalent in the home, especially if you live in humid or warmer climates. Dust mites love to live in furniture, carpets and plush toys – and that fluffy bedding that we don’t clean as often (or let the dog sleep on) are also literal hot-beds for dust mites. The reason that dust mites are a problem in the fall isn’t because you’re not cleaning as much – it’s because the second you turn on that heat, you create a fantastic climate for those pesky mites, so keep the temp under 77* if you want to ruin their ideal breeding conditions.6
Heating our homes, paired with the fact that we spend more times indoors during the fall and winter months means that we’re breathing in more dust mite waste, which triggers fall-time coughing, sneezing and allergies.
About 20 million Americans have dust mite allergy. – Asthma & Allergy Foundation of America.
And finally – the cold and flu season. Sinus infections caused by viruses will naturally become more prevalent in the cold weather months when the cold and flu bugs are invading our homes and our bodies.
So what to do?
The best way to combat sinus problems brought on by allergies is to avoid the outdoors when is it particularly windy (ragweed pollen can be carried for miles by the wind), keep your mouth covered if you are outside raking leaves, try to avoid letting piles of leaves stand in your yard – especially if they are already wet, and monitor your house for mold. Keep your house below 77*, try to keep clutter to a minimum and vacuum regularly.
If you do find yourself starting to experience symptoms of sinusitis or bad allergies in the fall, put a humidifier in your bedroom to help with sore throats and congestion, drink plenty of water and warm decongestant teas (we’ll have more suggestions for these this season), and get yourself a Neti Pot!
If your symptoms really get bad – call your doctor and ask for advice!
If you are a resident of Colorado, get in touch with the Colorado Voice Clinic to consult an ENT specialist about your sinus problems.
1 Suh JD, Chiu AG (2012). Acute and chronic sinusitis. In AK Lalwani, ed., Current Diagnosis and Treatment Otolaryngology Head and Neck Surgery, 3rd ed., pp. 291-301. New York: McGraw-Hill.
2 WebMD, Sinus Surgery for Sinusitis (2014)
3 Zapanta, Philip E , MD, FACS, Medscape.com, Turbinectomy (2016).
5 Johns Hopkins Medicine, Endoscopic Sinus Surgery
6 WebMD, 7 Tips for an Allergy-Proof Bedroom, (2015)