A mild case of acute sinusitis can be treated at home with over-the-counter medications and natural remedies like nasal irrigation, decongestants, steam inhalation, rest and plenty of fluids. Sinus infections that linger for weeks or months can require more intense treatment. Antibiotics and medication directed at the sinus inflammation may return normal sinus function. Surgery can be an option in cases of recurrent acute sinusitis or chronic sinus infections.
Most sinus infections will resolve in a week or two. However, there are rare cases of serious and potentially life-threatening complications that may arise. Knowing what the signs and symptoms of these complications can keep a complication from becoming a catastrophe.
The thin sinus walls share a border with the surrounding tissue including the eyes, brain and major nerves and blood vessels. A sinus infection can sometimes spread beyond the border of the sinuses. Read below about the potential rare consequences of an untreated sinus infection.
In rare situations, the failure to treat a sinus infection can lead to a serious complication.
Infection Of The Eye
Infected sinuses are particularly dangerous due to their proximity to the eyes and brain. A sinus infection can spread along the pathways of blood vessels or the nervous system. Children are at higher risk for sinus infection complications in the eyes since their facial bones are still maturing and opens between the sinuses and the eye sockets have not yet closed.
The sinus infection that spread to the eye socket lead to an increase in swollen tissue around the eyes. As a result, the eyes can look puffy or swollen shut. In some cases, the swollen might occur behind the eyes, pushing the eyes forward in the socket and preventing the eyelids from closing.
The eye socket is a very small, enclosed area, meaning that swelling can cause increased pressure that can lead to permanent eye damage. The infection can spread causing meningitis an even death. If you have severe eye pain or visual loss you should seek medical attention immediately.
In rare cases, an untreated sinus infection can spread to the brain or to the tissue surrounding the brain. If the infection spreads to the tissue of the brain, then you are at risk for seizures, brain damage or even death. Bacterial meningitis and even a brain abscess can occur leading to hearing loss, stroke, permanent brain damage, and even death.
The black arrows point to a brain abscess, a severe consequence of untreated sinusitis.
If you show signs of meningitis (headache, fever, nausea and stiff neck) or if you have a sudden change in your mental status or loss of function of part of your body you should seek medical care immediately.
Infection Of The Bone (Osteomyelitis)
Both recurrent acute sinusitis and chronic sinus infections can spread to the bone surrounding the sinuses. This infection can enter blood vessels and send bacteria to the brain or other parts of the body. Infected bone is very difficult to cure. Treatment is generally long-term intravenous antibiotics.
An untreated chronic sinus infection can alter the normal functions of your nose over time. A mucocele is a collection of mucus in the sinus that slowly expands over time. The pressure from the mucocele can erode or remodel bone adjacent to it and even herniate through the bone into the surrounding structure like the eye and brain. Symptomatic mucoceles require surgical drainage.
Sufferers of asthma are also likely to be negatively affected by an untreated sinus infection. Research shows that infections can not only aggravate, but worsen asthma. Because sinus infections affect one’s ability to breathe normally, any pre-existing breathing conditions, like asthma, are therefore also affected.