Winter dry sinuses and what you can do

It’s that time of year. Cold winter weather and dry air are here. When you think about the winter season, you can’t help but remember those mornings waking up with a dry mouth, sore throat and sinus congestion.

Of course, we are on high alert for COVID-19 and the flu. Still, other factors play a role in those unpleasant symptoms that are not directly related to infection, particularly when it comes to your sinuses. Environmental allergies and dry winter air can also cause sinus congestion.

What happens

The nose warms and humidifies the air inhaled with moisture that evaporates from the lining of the nasal passage. When exposed to cold and dry air, the lining of the nose becomes irritated and inflamed, and it produces more mucus, resulting in nasal congestion.

The excessive mucus drips into the throat and irritates it, causing a cough. The excess mucus can also obstruct the sinuses and become trapped, encouraging bacteria to grow. If it’s there for a long time, the increased amount of bacteria can cause an infection. This reaction is more pronounced in people with sensitive noses or nasal allergies, such as hay fever.

Allergies

Allergies can occur in the summer and the winter. Winter allergy symptoms are just your typical seasonal allergy symptoms combined with dry air. And because of the winter weather, you’re more likely to spend time indoors, increasing your exposure to indoor allergens.

The most common indoor allergens that trigger symptoms include dust mites, pet dander or mold. Itchy, watery eyes, sinus congestion and sneezing are common symptoms of allergies. Trying over-the-counter antihistamines – like Allegra, Claritin, Zyrtec and Zyzol – is recommended before going to your primary care provider or urgent care.

Infections

Most of the time, people think they have a sinus infection, the common cold or upper respiratory tract infection. Sinus infections happen when fluid builds up in the air-filled pockets in the face (sinuses), allowing germs to grow. While viruses cause most problems, bacteria can also cause sinus infections.

Common symptoms of sinus infections include:

  • Bad breath
  • Cough
  • Facial pain or pressure
  • Headache
  • Mucus dripping down the throat
  • Runny, stuffy nose
  • Sore throat

To avoid sinus and respiratory infection, remain hydrated and avoid being outdoors for long periods.

Need relief from sinus congestion?

> Talk to your doctor.

If you develop severe symptoms such as severe headache or facial pain symptoms that get worse after initially getting better, symptoms lasting more than 10 days without improvement or fever longer than three or four days, you should seek medical care. You should also seek medical care if you have had multiple sinus infections in the past year.

While antibiotics are not needed for many sinus infections, your primary care provider can help you with the best treatment option. You should see your primary care provider for any symptom that is severe or concerning.

What you can do

That’s why it’s essential to be proactive when you first develop sinus congestion, preventing it from progressing to an infection. It’s important to run vaporizers or air humidifiers in your home, drink extra liquids and use a nasal spray or nasal irrigation to moisturize your nasal passages.

If you plan to use nasal irrigation, don’t use tap water. Use distilled, filtered, bottled or boiled water at room temperature — never tap water. Tap water may not have been filtered properly and may cause irritation and infections.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend taking at least one of the following actions when using nasal irrigation to lower your risk for infection:

  • Boil water for one minute and let cool. At elevations above 6,500 feet, boil for three minutes.
  • Filter water using designated “NSF 53” or “NSF 58” filters. Filters designated as “absolute pore size of 1 micron or smaller” are also effective.
  • Buy distilled or sterile water.

There are potential side effects to nasal irrigation. Follow the instructions on your device and always use a clean irrigation device with purified water.

Make it a goal to drink at least 85-90 ounces or five or six bottled waters a day unless instructed by your primary care provider. If you think you have an allergy or infection, talk to your primary care provider.

About Author: Tina Doretti, APRN

Tina Doretti, APRN, has been working for OSF Healthcare since March 2021 at the Mount Greenwood location and specializes in Family medicine. She received her master's degree from Simmons College and worked as a registered nurse for 26 years before joining OSF. Tina enjoys spending time with her family, reading and working in the garden.

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