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Getting a sinus infection after the flu isn't uncommon, but it's sure not nice to be sick just after being sick. What are the symptoms of sinusitis, what can you do to feel more comfortable, and when should you see a doctor?

Influenza is bad enough on its own, pretty much putting you out of action for the better part of two weeks — in the best-case scenario, that is — but it can also lead to severe and less severe complications. Among other things, the flu leaves you vulnerable to Streptococcus pneumoniae, a bacterium that can cause pneumonia as well as middle ear infections and sinusitis. 

Do you think a recent flu might have given you a sinus infection? We're here to help. 

What is sinusitis?

Let's look at what the sinuses are, first — four symmetrically placed cavities; two right above your eyebrows where your nose ends, and two more underneath your eyes on either side of the nose. You've noticed a trend, here, I'm sure, and you probably already know that the mucus that comes from your sinuses drains into your nasal cavity. Sinusitis causes the lining of your sinuses swell up because of inflammation, making it very hard for that process to go smoothly. This kind of infection usually strikes as a result of a prior virus, in this case the flu. 

The symptoms of a sinus infection

The tell-tale symptoms you're dealing with a sinus infection include:

  • Discolored and often thick, infected, green or yellow mucus coming from your nose, which will also be congested at this time. 
  • A stuffy or uncomfortable feeling around your eyes or forehead — because that's where the sinuses are. 
  • A cough. 
  • A fever. 
  • Fatigue and feelings of weakness. 
  • Bad breath. 
Things like allergies and structural problems with your nasal cavity can lead to chronic sinusitis, but if you develop a sinus infection after a flu, your condition is unlikely to remain a problem for very long. You may not even need to see a doctor, as acute sinus infections should clear up within four weeks and you can make yourself more comfortable with over the counter medications in the meantime. 

How can you treat a flu-related sinus infection?

Saline nasal sprays are a simple but fairly effective treatment for acute sinus infections. You can get these from your local pharmacy, and spray them into your nose to help clear out mucus a few times a day. A neti pot, a type of vessel with a "trunk" a bit like an elephant's to help irrigate your nose, likewise with a saline solution, can be used instead. Which one you prefer is up to you.

You may also opt to take over the counter pain relievers such as ibuprofen (an NSAID that also fights inflammation) or Tylenol to alleviate your discomfort. 

Nasal decongestants can literally take some of the pressure off, and your pharmacist will be happy to recommend one, but they should only be used for a short time to prevent side effects and a worsening of symptoms. 

Some cases of sinusitis can be complicated, but if you get a sinus infection after a flu, you likely won't need imaging tests or even antibiotics. Even if the cause of your sinusitis is bacterial in origin, as it is likely to be following influenza, your body will probably be able to fight the infection off without the help of antibiotics. They may be necessary if:

  • Your symptoms don't improve after a week
  • You feel really bad
  • You have a weakened immune system

If any of these factors apply to you, have a chat with your doctor. They may determine that you do need a course of antibiotics, in which case amoxicillin is the first choice. If you are allergic to penicillin, you may be prescribed trimethoprim/sulfamethoxazole or  macrolide antibiotics instead. People who are prescribed antibiotics should always take them exactly as instructed and finish the entire course, even if they feel completely better before it's done. 

Self-care steps you can take if you have sinusitis

For a speedier recovery from that nasty sinus infection, drink plenty of clear fluids. Water is great, but nice herbal teas like mint or chamomile can also help out. Steer clear of beverages that can actually promote dehydration, such as alcohol and coffee, however. Staying hydrated will help that mucus drain faster. 

Take it as easy as you can to get better faster — over-stressing yourself will only prolong that sinus infection, so rest up. You may have trouble sleeping as you battle your sinusitis, though, so sleeping with your head propped up (a few pillows will help) can assist you. This will make sure your mucus can leave your nose more easily, lessening nasal congestion that can make it hard to get that shut-eye. 

Some people will also find relief by applying hot compresses to their face around the sinus area, or by doing steam inhalation therapy at home. In its basic form, steam inhalation therapy involves inhaling hot but not quite boiling water by placing a tea towel over your head while the pot of water is underneath you. You can add some herbal tea or eucalyptus oil to the process, too. 

In conclusion

Getting sinusitis after a flu isn't nice, but you're unlikely to have it for very long and you can make yourself more comfortable by taking the steps we outlined. If it continues for longer than a week, you feel really quite bad, or you are immunocompromised, however, swinging by your doctor is a good idea; you may require antibiotics. And for next time around, remember that the best way to prevent flu complications is preventing influenza itself — the CDC recommends a flu shot to everyone older than six months for good reason, so consider putting that on your agenda.