Sinus Infections

What Happens to an Untreated Sinus Infection?

February 20, 2024

6 minutes

Reviewed by Michael Kaplan, MD

When managed promptly, sinus infections typically recede without any significant consequences, ensuring a rapid return to daily activities and overall well-being. However, if left untreated, the infection can persist and potentially worsen, paving the way for chronic discomfort, further infection, and in rare cases, more severe medical conditions.

More specifically, untreated sinus infections can lead to:

  • Decreased sense of smell
  • Paranasal sinus mucocele
  • Spread of infection
  • Orbital cellulitis
  • Meningitis and brain abscess
  • Sinus thrombosis

In this article, the sinus specialists from Kaplan Sinus Relief will explain in detail the potential sinus infection complications and the importance of seeking timely medical treatment.

Untreated sinus infection symptoms

If you suspect you have a sinus infection, it’s essential to monitor your symptoms and seek medical treatment promptly. Symptoms of an untreated sinus infection look similar to typical sinus infection symptoms and may include:

It’s crucial to pay attention to any potential sinus infection complications that may arise from an untreated sinus infection. If you experience any worsening symptoms such as severe headache, stiff neck, or vision changes, seek immediate medical attention to prevent further complications.

What happens if you do nothing for a sinus infection?

If left untreated, a sinus infection can persist and lead to several complications. The primary role of the sinuses is to produce mucus that moisturizes the air we breathe along with trapping dust particles and germs and helping to fight off infections. An untreated sinus infection can disrupt this normal function and cause severe discomfort.

So, what happens if a sinus infection goes untreated? Here are the most common sinus infection complications.

Decreased sense of smell

One of the most noticeable consequences of an untreated sinus infection is a decreased sense of smell. The olfactory receptors, responsible for detecting scents, are located in the upper part of the nasal passages. When a sinus infection is left untreated, inflammation and blockage can occur within the sinuses, hindering the ability to smell properly. In some cases, this loss of smell can be permanent.

While steroid nasal sprays can temporarily help, it’s possible to incur permanent damage to your sense of smell. Seeking medical treatment for a sinus infection can help prevent this complication and preserve your sense of smell.

Paranasal sinus mucocele

A paranasal sinus mucocele is another potential complication of an untreated sinus infection. This occurs when mucus accumulates in the sinuses and creates pressure, leading to a cyst-like structure. If left untreated, this mucocele can cause severe pain, pressure, and even facial deformity.

Typically, paranasal sinus mucocele treatment will involve drainage of the mucus and any infected tissues. However, in severe cases, surgery may be required to remove the affected sinus and restore normal function.

Spread of infection

The longer a sinus infection goes untreated, the higher the risk of it spreading to other areas. The sinuses are located close to vital structures such as the eyes, brain, and skull base. If left untreated, an infection can spread to these areas and lead to more severe complications such as orbital cellulitis, meningitis, and brain abscess.

When a sinus infection spreads to surrounding areas, immediate and aggressive treatment is crucial. Antibiotics are typically the first line of defense to manage an untreated bacterial sinus infection. For infections spreading to the orbit or intracranially, intravenous antibiotics may be necessary to deliver more potent treatment. In some cases, particularly with orbital cellulitis or brain abscess, surgical intervention could be required to drain abscesses and alleviate pressure.

Orbital cellulitis

Orbital cellulitis is a bacterial infection of the eye socket that can result from an untreated sinus infection. This condition can cause swelling and redness around the eye, as well as pain, fever, and difficulty moving the eye. If left untreated, orbital cellulitis can lead to blindness or even sepsis, a life-threatening condition that involves the body’s overwhelming response to infection.

Immediate medical attention is necessary for orbital cellulitis. Antibiotics and possibly surgery may be required to treat the infection and prevent further complications.

Meningitis and brain abscess

The most rare yet most severe complications of an untreated sinus infection are meningitis and brain abscess. Meningitis is an infection of the protective membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord, while a brain abscess is a localized infection within the brain tissue. Both of these conditions can result from untreated sinus infections that spread to the central nervous system.

If you’ve left a sinus infection untreated, you must know how to tell if a sinus infection has spread to the brain. Symptoms of meningitis may include: 

  • Severe headache
  • Fever
  • Stiff neck
  • Confusion

Brain abscess symptoms may include: 

  • Headache
  • Nausea/vomiting
  • Seizures
  • Changes in mental status

Both conditions require urgent medical attention and may involve a combination of antibiotics and surgery to treat the infection.

Sinus thrombosis

In rare cases, an untreated sinus infection can lead to a serious condition called sinus thrombosis. This occurs when blood clots form in the sinuses and can potentially spread to other parts of the body, causing serious complications such as stroke or pulmonary embolism. Thrombosis, the blood clot, normally serves as a barrier between a serious infection and other parts of your body and is supposed to keep an infection from spreading.

However, when the blood clot occurs in a vein that runs behind the eyes and under the brain, it risks expanding and producing pressure on the brain. This pressure causes droopy eyes, vision loss, seizures, and other symptoms. Thrombosis can be fatal in some cases so seeking prompt treatment for a sinus infection can significantly reduce the risk of developing sinus thrombosis.

Concerned about your chronic sinusitis? Kaplan Sinus Relief can help!

So, what’s the verdict? Is chronic sinusitis dangerous? While chronic sinusitis itself is not life-threatening, untreated sinus infections can lead to severe complications. If you suffer from chronic or frequent sinus infections, it’s crucial to seek medical treatment to prevent any potential long-term consequences.

At Kaplan Sinus Relief, we specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of chronic sinusitis by offering patients balloon sinuplasty in Houston — a minimally invasive, pain-free, in-office procedure that expands your sinuses and provides relief from sinusitis. Because the procedure requires neither incisions nor the removal of bone or tissue, your balloon sinuplasty recovery experience is quick and easy. You’ll be back on your feet and free of sinus symptoms in no time!

Are you ready to say goodbye to chronic sinusitis and its complications? Schedule an appointment with us today!

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