When it comes to congested nasal passages, many people tend to use the term “sinus” quite liberally. But when it comes to sinus problems, there might be more than meets the eye (or nose!), and it can be much more treatable than you think. 

We all have sinus passages – the cavities in our face that assist in speech, so we do not sound like we are speaking under water.

Babies and children initially have no sinuses, but their sinuses eventually develop into our adult size cavities. Mucous membranes line these cavities, and these membranes are similar to a soft carpet that lines them that has the texture of the tissue on the inside of your mouth.

The passage leading up to your sinuses is your nose, which can be seen as a fantastic filter that cleans the air you breathe, from large particles such as insects, pollens and pollutant particles, bacteria and viruses. The nose catches these objects with a very intricate system of visible hair, mucous membranes and invisible hair known as  “cilia”. Think of your nose as a very elegantly built-in vacuum cleaner!

Deeper into your immune system

But as advanced as your nose might be, there always will be some particles that manage to slip through and reach the mucous in your sinuses. Which brings us to your body’s next line of defence: Your immune system, which processes the particles that managed to slip through. It fights bacteria and viruses, and foreign material such as pollen. During this “fight”, your body has the choice to process this and to become immune or resistant to the potentially harmful particle or to become allergic to it.

This is when the condition that is often labelled as “sinus” tends to start.

If your body has switched on its allergic mode, it activates a group of cells that release histamines that make you itch, sneeze and develop a runny nose. These symptoms can be hard to distinguish from a cold.

Two days later, these cells might still be reacting, causing inflammation that leads to congestion in your nose and sinuses, creating a sensation of drowning in your mucus.

Infection vs allergy – the difference

The main difference between an infection and an allergy is the chronic nature of the blockage. Although allergic mucus membranes are more susceptible to infections, it is unlikely to lead to a chronic infection.

During summer our exposure to specific allergens are more consistent, so we have more of a propensity to experience itchy, runny noses. We sneeze, wheeze and experience blockages and this is when many of us tend to say we’re having “sinus” or “sinusitis” while there is a strong possibility that it might be allergic rhinitis.

If you are suffering from sinus problems like the ones mentioned above, it might be a good idea to undergo allergy tests, because it can be very treatable. Read more about this condition here.

  • The purpose of this article is to raise awareness of allergies and the treatment options that are available for it. This article should by no means be used, or viewed, as a primary source for medical advice – please arrange for a personal consultation with your medical practitioner before taking any decisions that could affect the wellbeing of you or your loved ones. Read our medical disclaimer for more information.

© 2018 | Dr Marinda McDonald | Practice number 0015393 | All rights reserved


Marinda McDonald

Dr Marinda McDonald has offered specialised treatments for allergies for most of her professional career. Read more about her on the home page of this website (allergydoc.co.za).