A sinus infection can spread to the brain, although this is rare. People require immediate medical treatment if a sinus infection reaches the brain.

Sinusitis is an inflammation of the sinuses and usually occurs due to a bacterial infection.

The sinuses are hollow cavities in the cheeks, behind the forehead and eyebrows, at the bridge of the nose, and behind the nose in front of the brain.

If a sinus infection is close to the brain, it may spread to the brain, which can be life threatening.

This article looks at the signs and symptoms of a sinus infection spreading to the brain, conditions this may cause, treatments, and when to seek help.

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A sinus infection spreading to the brain is rare. Complications of sinusitis may occur in around 1 in every 1,000 cases. It is important to note that only a small number of these cases include the brain, however.

Conditions which may occur if a sinus infection spreads to the brain include the following:

  • Meningitis: An inflammation of the tissues surrounding the spinal cord and brain. Meningitis can occur due to bacterial, viral, or fungal infections that may travel to the brain.
  • Encephalitis: This is an inflammation of the brain. It can occur if a bacterial, viral, or fungal infection or parasites affect the brain.
  • Brain abscess: A brain abscess is a collection of pus that forms in the brain due to an infection. Infections of the neck and head, including sinusitis, may cause a brain abscess.

Signs and symptoms that may indicate a sinus infection has spread to the brain may include the following:

  • severe headache
  • fever
  • flu-like symptoms
  • nausea or vomiting
  • vision changes, such as double vision
  • neck stiffness
  • sensitivity to bright light
  • change in mental status
  • lethargy
  • seizures
  • changes to speech or hearing
  • personality changes
  • loss of sensation in areas of the body
  • partial paralysis of the arms and legs
  • muscle weakness
  • hallucinations
  • impaired judgment
  • memory loss
  • loss of consciousness

When to seek emergency help

If a sinus infection has spread to the brain, it is an emergency. People will need immediate medical treatment to prevent the infection from spreading further and prevent serious complications.

What to do if a person notices these symptoms

The above signs may indicate a sinus infection has spread to the brain and may be symptoms of meningitis, encephalitis, or a brain abscess.

If people experience the above symptoms, they will need to seek medical help straight away. A person will need to go to the emergency room or call 911 if they suspect a sinus infection has spread to the brain.

Doctors may use various tests to diagnose whether a sinus infection has spread to the brain. These include:

  • physical examination with tests to check certain functions, including vision, hearing, speech, coordination, and mental status
  • needle biopsy of cerebrospinal fluid, which surrounds the brain and spinal cord, to look for infections and signs of inflammation
  • CT scan or MRI scan for brain imaging to show any lesions, signs of inflammation, or other abnormalities

Treatment for a sinus infection that has spread to the brain may depend on the condition.

For bacterial meningitis, first-line treatment may include antibiotics, which can cross the barrier of cells that protects the brain, called the blood-brain barrier.

Other medications may also include corticosteroids to reduce any inflammation in the brain. Doctors may also drain the sinuses to remove the blockage and infection.

Prednisone is a corticosteroid that can help to reduce pressure and swelling in the brain and help prevent hearing loss. People may also have anticonvulsants to prevent seizures.

For viral encephalitis, people may have treatment with antiviral drugs such as acyclovir and ganciclovir.

If a person has a brain abscess, they may require surgery to remove the abscess. If multiple abscesses are present, the treatment may be high-dose antibiotics, which can cross the blood-brain barrier. It is also possible for healthcare professionals to use the other forms of treatment in combination with surgery.

Other possible treatment options include a nasal regime with sprays such as Afrin or Flonase, irrigation, and elevating the head of the bed.

A person may need rehabilitation after treatment for a sinus infection that has spread to the brain, depending on how an infection has affected the nervous system. This may include:

  • physical therapy
  • speech therapy
  • occupational therapy
  • cognitive rehabilitation to help improve cognitive function

Early diagnosis and prompt treatment are vital for a sinus infection that has spread to the brain.

Conditions such as meningitis and encephalitis can progress rapidly. Without treatment, they can cause severe and irreversible damage to the nervous system.

The outlook for meningitis or encephalitis can vary for each person, depending on the type and severity of infection and how quickly people receive treatment. In most cases, people can make a full recovery from mild meningitis or encephalitis, although recovery may take time.

Brain imaging tests, such as CT and MRI scans, along with the use of antimicrobials, have helped to improve the outlook for a brain abscess.

If a brain abscess ruptures, it can be fatal. Early diagnosis and treatment may help to improve outlook.

People will need to see a doctor for a sinus infection if they have the following:

  • severe headache or facial pain
  • symptoms lasting longer than 10 days with no improvement
  • symptoms that improve and then worsen
  • fever lasting for more than 3–4 days
  • multiple sinus infections in the previous year
  • any other severe or concerning symptoms

Treating a sinus infection early can help to avoid complications and prevent the infection from spreading.

If a person has a sinus infection for more than 8 weeks or if antibiotics are not effective, they may require tests to find out the cause and type of infection.

People will need to go to the emergency room if they experience any of the following with a sinus infection:

  • neck stiffness
  • nausea or vomiting
  • severe pain
  • changes in vision
  • sensitivity to light
  • changes in mental status or personality
  • muscle weakness or paralysis
  • seizures

In rare cases, a sinus infection can spread to the brain. Without prompt treatment, this may cause severe complications and can prove life threatening.

People will require immediate medical treatment for a sinus infection of the brain. This may include antimicrobial drugs to fight the infection and steroids to control swelling in the brain.

Early diagnosis and treatment are important in helping to prevent the infection from progressing further and to improve outlook.