How to Cope With a Sinus Infection During Pregnancy

Sinus infections are a serious bummer. Here's how to know if you actually have one and how treat it safely to keep both you and baby healthy.
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Updated March 24, 2020
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A sinus infection can be quite uncomfortable in and of itself—but when one strikes during pregnancy, things can get confusing. For one thing, you might be unsure as to whether it’s actually a sinus infection or just a run-of-the-mill pregnancy symptom. For another, it’s not always clear as to whether the typical treatments are safe for baby. That’s why we talked to experts about what it’s like to suffer a sinus infection during pregnancy, what causes it and how to treat it safely.

What Is Sinusitis in Pregnancy?

Sinusitis is the medical term for an infection of the sinuses, which are air-filled pockets around your nose. They’re lined with a membrane that produces mucus, which, under normal circumstances, efficiently drains away. But when your sinuses are inflamed and swollen, that drainage slows down, the fluid builds up and you end up feeling as if you have a bad cold.

While you might be more susceptible to a sinus infection in pregnancy, the condition manifests itself the same way it would for anyone, pregnant or not, says Omid Mehdizadeh, MD, an otolaryngologist and laryngologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California.

What Causes a Sinus Infection in Pregnancy?

While the symptoms are the same regardless of the cause, the reasons behind your sinus infection during pregnancy (or any other time) can vary. Culprits may include:

  • Viruses
  • Seasonal allergens
  • Bacteria
  • Hormonal shifts during pregnancy
  • Structural issues of the nose

Typically viruses, allergens and (in some cases) bacteria incite inflammation and swelling, hindering drainage. But pregnancy itself may be a culprit—a rise in estrogen and progesterone can induce swelling, says Mehdizadeh. If you were prone to having sinus infections before becoming pregnant, he adds, then you have a higher chance of experiencing a sinus infection once you are pregnant.

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Signs of a Sinus Infection During Pregnancy

If you’re pregnant and haven’t had much experience with sinus infections in the past, you might wonder what hit you. Chances are you have a sinus infection if you notice:

  • Yellow or green drainage from your nose
  • Nasal congestion
  • Facial pressure
  • Headaches

When these symptoms last more than a week to 10 days without any improvement, it’s probably a bacterial infection instead of a viral one, notes Ahmad R. Sedaghat, MD, PhD, an associate professor in the department of otolaryngology at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine. In that case you may need to be prescribed antibiotics, so be sure to let your doctor know if your symptoms worsen.

While sinus pressure and pain in pregnancy might leave you feeling pretty under the weather, the good news is that the infection won’t affect your baby.

How to Treat a Sinus Infection During Pregnancy

Most sinus infections are viral, so taking antibiotics generally won’t help (unless you have a diagnosed bacterial infection). As with the cold or flu, your best bet for sinus relief during pregnancy comes from managing the symptoms with home remedies, such as:

Nasal irrigation. Using salt water irrigation, like a Neti pot, can help keep the lining of your nasal passages moist, remove backed-up gunk and promote drainage. “Studies have shown that rinsing one’s nose with saline by itself will improve sinusitis symptoms as well as swelling in the nose,” Sedaghat says. “Saline is available as normal saline (same salt concentration as in the body) and hypertonic saline (high salt concentration); both work equally well, but the hypertonic saline is sometimes associated with nasal dryness or nose bleeds.”

Salt water spray. While not as effective as irrigating with a Neti pot, a spray will moisten your nasal-passage lining too and some provide relief. “Anything that’s pushing salt through would be helpful,” Mehdizadeh says.

Cool compresses. Applying a cool, damp washcloth over your sinuses can help ease discomfort, says Mehdizadeh, and can also soothe a sinus headache in pregnancy.

Be careful about taking over-the-counter medications, as some can be harmful to baby. But Acetaminophen (Tylenol) can safely help with the pain, Mehdizadeh says. If you’re having recurring infections, your doctor may suggest a medication. While oral steroids are generally not recommended as treatment for sinusitis in pregnancy, “nasal steroid irrigation is generally considered safe because systemic absorption into the bloodstream is quite low,” he explains. Again, always discuss with your doctor before taking any medication.

Sinus infections typically clear up within two weeks, but call your doctor if your symptoms remain the same or get worse, and especially if you develop a fever, changes in vision or ear or throat pain.

Expert bios:

Omid Mehdizadeh, MD, is an otolaryngology and head & neck surgeon at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California, with a particular expertise in voice, swallowing and throat conditions. He received his medical degree from the University of California at Davis School of Medicine.

Ahmad R. Sedaghat, MD, PhD, is an associate professor in the department of otolaryngology at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine. He earned his medical degree from Johns Hopkins University.

Please note: The Bump and the materials and information it contains are not intended to, and do not constitute, medical or other health advice or diagnosis and should not be used as such. You should always consult with a qualified physician or health professional about your specific circumstances.

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