How do you know if a sinus infection has spread to the brain?

When I was a little kid and I had a potential sinus infection, my mom (a hypochondriac, though she’ll deny it) would always warn: Watch it, that infection might go to your brain!

It was a useful strategy to get me to go to the doctor. But is it really true? Can a sinus infection actually travel to your noggin?

Serious Sinus Infections

While rare, the infection from a sinus issue can spread to the eyes or brain.

If the infection reaches the eyes you can experience redness, swelling around the eyes and reduced vision. Cavernous sinus thrombosis is a rare infection that can lead to blindness.

What Is a Brain Abscess?

When bacteria, fungi, or other pathogens enter the brain, a mass of macrobiotic organisms enclosed in a membrane can form around the infection. While this protective membrane forms to isolate the infection, it creates swelling in the brain.

Usually, the bacteria and fungi enter the brain through the bloodstream as the result of an infection elsewhere in the body. Between 20% and 50% of the incidents of brain abscesses are caused by other infections. Lung and heart infections seem to be the most common sources of the pathogens, but sinusitis (sinus infection), as well as ear and tooth infections, can also release bacteria into the bloodstream. The good news is studies have shown that brain abscess from sinus infection is on the decline with only 21% of reported health institution cases citing sinus infection as the source. Infections in other parts of the body are not the only source of pathogens. Direct head trauma from an injury or surgery can also introduce bacteria or fungi into the brain.

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Acute bacterial sinusitis

This sinusitis occurs suddenly and does not go away even after ten days. The symptoms include runny nose, stuffy nose, and facial pain. This sinusitis also recurs and comes back with worse symptoms than the first infection.

This type of infection comes with symptoms of nasal congestion, decreased sense of smell, facial pain, and drainage. It lasts for at least 12 weeks.

When antibiotics are in order

The main reason to prescribe antibiotics is for patient comfort, Dr. Sindwani says. The medical field used to be more convinced than it is today than untreated sinusitis would inevitably become a chronic issue, he says.

“We don’t think that way as much,” he says. “We don’t know that an untreated acute sinusitis, if left untreated, will grumble along and cause people to have a chronic sinus infection.”

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