Winter Sinusitis: What Causes Sinus Issues in Winter?

Fact checked by Olga Sadouskaya, MD
Clinical Pharmacologist, Chief Medical Officer

Are you struggling with winter nasal congestion?

Do you get sinus headaches in winter with pressure behind your eyes?

Blocked and painful sinuses can happen at any time of year. But sinus issues in winter are more common due to frosty temperatures, dry indoor air, and frequent viral infections. It creates the “perfect storm” for sinus problems in winter.

In this article, we’ll explore the symptoms and causes of winter sinus issues. Plus, we’ll unpack the difference between sinusitis and a cold and give you prevention and treatment tips.

What is sinusitis?

Sinusitis is a painful condition that occurs when the tissues lining your nasal passages and paranasal sinuses become swollen. This causes a fluid buildup and creates a stuffy nose, sinus pressure, and horrible headaches.

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Sinuses are hollow cavities found between your eyes and behind your forehead, nose, and cheeks. They produce a thin mucus that keeps your nose moist. Sinusitis blocks the paranasal sinuses, preventing mucus from draining into the nasal passages. It usually develops due to a viral infection, seasonal allergies, or exposure to irritants. It may also be more common in people with nasal polyps or a deviated septum.

Is sinusitis a chronic disease?

Sinusitis falls into two categories: acute and chronic.

Acute sinusitis is a short-term inflammation. It may last a few days or a few weeks. It’s typically triggered by a cold virus and clears up on its own.

A man having sinus problems in winter

Sinusitis becomes chronic for many people, especially during the cold winter months. Chronic sinusitis lasts for at least three months and may recur throughout the year. It may be caused by an infection, chronic nasal irritation, or a structural abnormality.

If you struggle with chronic sinus problems in winter, it’s important to speak to your doctor.

Common sinus issues in winter

Some of the most common symptoms of winter sinusitis include:

  • A stuffy, blocked nose
  • Green or yellow mucus
  • Pressure in your face and head
  • A headache
  • Facial tenderness
  • Ear pressure and earache
  • Toothache
  • Post-nasal drip
  • Fatigue
  • Bad breath
  • Loss of smell and taste

You may not have all the symptoms, but most people exhibit at least two of them.

What causes sinus problems in winter?

If you’re prone to winter sinusitis, it can be a miserable time of year.

But why does the drop in temperature trigger a runny nose and sinus problems?

Spending time indoors blasting the indoor heating with the windows closed is a nightmare for your sinuses. Indoor heating and fires rapidly suck moisture from the air, dehydrating mucus membranes in your sinuses and causing irritation. Plus, spending more time indoors means more exposure to allergens.

A buildup of dust, pet dander, and soot from the fireplace can irritate your sinuses and cause inflammation.

Finally, winter is cold and flu season. If your nose gets congested from an infection and can’t drain properly, it can lead to a secondary sinus infection.

Unfortunately, it can be tricky to know if you’re dealing with winter sinusitis or just a cold.

Sinusitis vs. a common cold: Know the difference!

Sinusitis and cold symptoms often overlap, making them hard to distinguish. The main difference is that sinusitis lasts longer than a cold.

A cold typically lasts 5–7 days. Acute sinusitis clears up within two weeks, while chronic sinusitis lasts three months or longer. It can feel like a cold that doesn’t go away!

How to prevent winter sinus issues

Understanding the causes of sinus problems in winter can help you prepare for the cold months and take precautions.

Implementing the following lifestyle changes may reduce your risk of sinusitis this winter.

1. Purify the air

Allergens like dust, smoke, pet hair, and mold can collect in your home in winter and irritate your sinuses.

Using an air purifier or attaching a HEPA filter to your air conditioner or heating system may help to prevent sinusitis in winter. These filters trap small airborne particles, improving the air quality in your home.

2. Humidify your home and office

Having clean air won’t prevent a stuffy nose in winter if the air is still very dry.

We recommend purchasing a humidifier to put moisture back into the air in your home or office. It regulates the humidity throughout the day and night. This helps to clear congestion and may even improve your quality of sleep. Ideally, you want to maintain the humidity level around 40–60 percent.

Tip: Clean your humidifier regularly to avoid mold growth.

3. Clean regularly

Dust, soot from the fireplace, and pet dander often accumulate on blankets, clothes, and carpets in winter and contribute to sinusitis.

A man vacuuming the carpet to prevent sinus issues in winter

Vacuuming, mopping, and dusting your home will remove many of these irritants. We also suggest washing your winter bedding, clothing, and rugs frequently.

4. Support your immune system

Winter is hard on your immune system, and depleted immunity puts you at greater risk for infections and sinus issues.

Support your immune system during winter — and year-round — with these lifestyle tips:

  • Focus on eating a nutrient-dense, whole food diet.
  • Drink water throughout the day.
  • Aim to exercise for 30 minutes five days per week.
  • Regulate your stress levels as much as possible.
  • Wash your hands frequently and avoid direct contact with people who have colds or flu.

Winter sinusitis treatment

Are you currently in the throes of a winter sinusitis attack or anticipating one when winter hits?

Here’s what you can do to relieve symptoms:

1. Use a saline rinse

Rinsing out your sinuses with a saline solution is a first-line treatment for sinusitis and a stuffy nose in winter. Nasal irrigation is a traditional Ayurvedic practice, and research shows it relieves symptoms of sinusitis, including sinus pressure and headaches. It hydrates the nasal passages and clears mucus, allergens, and bacteria.

Mix 1/4 teaspoon of pure salt in 8 ounces of warm purified water and let the solution cool down. Use a neti pot or a small bulb syringe to irrigate your nasal cavities while leaning over a sink.

2. Steam your sinuses

Steam can be therapeutic if you’re dealing with painful, blocked sinuses. However, this method shouldn’t be used during the acute period of infection if you have a fever.

Sitting in a sauna or steam room adds moisture to your nasal passages and may relieve congestion.

You can also steam your sinuses by running a hot shower or bath and sitting in your bathroom with the door closed.

3. Drink plenty of water

Regularly drinking water and other fluids in winter helps to lubricate your mucus membranes, thin out mucus production, and fight off infections.

Unfortunately, drinking enough fluids during winter can be a difficult task. And dehydration can worsen sinusitis, especially when combined with dry air. Drinking warm broth and herbal teas are easy ways to boost your daily fluid intake in winter.

4. Try a bromelain supplement

Natural supplements can support your immune system and help you clear a sinus infection. Bromelain is a supplement with promising results for sinusitis.

It’s an enzyme extracted from pineapples with potent anti-inflammatory properties. Research shows bromelain penetrates the sinus mucosa, making it ideal for reducing inflammation associated with sinusitis.

5. Talk to your doctor

Speak to your doctor about medication to relieve congestion, pain, and nasal inflammation. They will look at your sinuses with a flashlight and decide on the best course of treatment. They can also work with you to identify your triggers.

Some of the most common over-the-counter and prescription medication for sinusitis are:

  • Corticosteroid nasal spray
  • Decongestant tablets and nasal sprays
  • Antihistamines — if the trigger is allergic rhinitis
  • Antibiotics — for a bacterial sinus infection

A doctor may also recommend surgery to remove polyps or other obstructions.

Note: Always talk to your doctor about potential side effects before starting a new medication or supplement.

6. Rest

Allowing your body to rest is important when you’re struggling with sinusitis. Rest helps you direct energy to healing so you can recover faster. However, when you lie down, try elevating your head slightly to improve sinus drainage.

How to manage winter sinus headaches

A sinus headache in winter can feel unbearable. A buildup of fluid and air in the sinus cavity causes a headache and pressure behind your eyes.

You can take oral painkillers like aspirin, acetaminophen, and ibuprofen to manage pain. However, to prevent rebound headaches, you must reduce congestion.

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Steaming your sinuses and using a saline rinse helps clear mucus and manage winter sinus headaches.

Aromatherapy is another remedy that might offer relief for congestion and sinusitis headaches. Essential oils like eucalyptus, peppermint, and tea tree have expectorant, decongestant, and antimicrobial properties that may open your nasal passages. If you have a diffuser, add a few drops of peppermint and eucalyptus essential oil and inhale the vapors. You can also drop these oils onto a tissue and lift it to your nose as you breathe in.

In conclusion

Winter sinus issues can make it hard to enjoy outdoor activities and stop you from enjoying time with your loved ones.

Luckily, knowing the risk factors may help you avoid a stuffy nose and sinus headache. Trapping allergens in an air filter, humidifying the air, and supporting your immune system are just some of the ways you can proactively address winter sinusitis this year.

Take note: A sinus infection may cause complications if left untreated. If your symptoms don’t improve or worsen, please speak to your doctor.

September 6, 2022