Sinus problems affect 1 in 5 American adults each year, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. Many of us already know that sinus conditions can trigger headaches and congestion, but a new study from Taipei Medical University says the inflammation that causes the pain and pressure of a sinus infection also increases the odds of suffering a stroke — by 34 percent for people with chronic sinusitis and by 39 percent for those with occasional acute infections.
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The linkage of sinusitis to stroke reflects a heightened risk to adults in midlife, since about 37 percent of stroke patients are between 45 and 65, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Sinus infections are most commonly caused by the same viruses associated with the common cold, says Dr. Meera Gupta, assistant professor of allergy and immunology at University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. When a virus sets up shop in your sinuses, it produces inflammation that causes the telltale pressure around the nose and eyes. In addition to a headache, the infection can sometimes bring on congestion that lasts about a week, along with thick, discolored mucus and facial or tooth pain.
"Typically, these infections will resolve on their own within 7 to 10 days," Gupta says. In about 2 percent of cases, the infection does not clear in that time, an indication that a bacterial infection requiring antibiotics may have developed.
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The pain, and the constant need to clear your nose, can be irritating. But the inflammation in your sinus cavities can also be a stroke trigger. Persistent, unchecked inflammation in the body has been linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular and neurological disease, cancer, diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis. Sinus inflammation, located close to your brain, may also put pressure on its arteries, which could disrupt normal blood flow and lead to a stroke.
Taming Your Sinuses
To reduce the risk, take steps to tame chronic inflammation in your nasal passages. If the irritation lasts longer than a week see a doctor so that a bacterial infection, if present, can be diagnosed and treated with antibiotics.
For typical inflammation, over-the-counter nasal sprays should suffice, says Dr. James Stankiewicz, chairman of the Department of Otolaryngology at Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood, Ill. "Sprays made from saline or saltwater are sold over the counter and help drainage," he says. "Decongestant sprays, which may be prescription or over the counter, help open the nose to breathe and reduce congestion and drainage. Steroid sprays are usually given via prescription. They reduce inflammation and swelling and promote drainage to help clear the infection." Nasal saline irrigation can also relieve symptoms.
Seasonal allergies are another major cause of sinus inflammation. "Allergies can block normal sinus drainage and predispose a person to developing sinus infections," Stankiewicz says. If you experience congestion or sinus irritation during hay fever season, when the pollen count is high or when exposed to allergens, like animal dander or mold, see your doctor about treatments to alleviate symptoms.
(MORE: Silent Strokes and Alzheimer's: Break the Connection)
Why Sinuses Matter
Sinuses can be a gateway which, if breached, can leave you vulnerable to compromised health beyond the proven stroke risk. "Chronic sinus congestion can lead to snoring and sleep apnea, which is associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease," Stankiewicz says. "In addition, chronic inflammation in the sinuses associated with allergies can cause lethargy, fatigue and cognitive impairment."
It's important to remember that, while troublesome, sinus infection can usually be treated effectively by your primary care physician, otolaryngologist or allergist. Given what we now know about the connection between our sinuses and our overall health, if you experience irritation for more than 7 to 10 days, see your doctor.