Emergency symptoms of a sinus infection in the brain

A sinus infection can spread to the brain through the bloodstream or the bone. It is a rare event, but incredibly serious. When a sinus infection spreads to the brain, it can cause several conditions such as encephalitis, meningitisor a brain abscess.

This article will discuss how a sinus infection can travel into the brain, signs and symptoms, and treatments. It will also cover the various conditions caused by a sinus infection in the brain.

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How does a sinus infection spread to the brain?

The sinuses, also called sinus cavities, are hollow spaces in the skull that surround the nose. Sinuses produce mucus that drains into the nose.

A sinus infection produces sinusitis (when the sinus cavities become inflamed). Sinusitis can be caused by an infection or other problems such as allergies. It is typically caused by a cold that produces a secondary bacterial infection.

The sinus cavities are close to the brain. When someone has a sinus infection, especially in the frontal and sphenoid sinuses, the bacteria or virus can travel through the bones or blood vessels and into the brain. This can cause a life-threatening infection.

Warning symptoms of sinus infection in the brain

A sinus infection that has spread to the brain will cause severe symptoms. These symptoms will vary depending on the type of infection and where it is located. These symptoms may include:

  • Sudden high fever
  • Stiff neck
  • Personality changes
  • Headache
  • Altered consciousness
  • Visual changes
  • Attack
  • Coma

A brain infection is very serious. Although you may not be able to feel the infection move to the brain, the symptoms will become so severe that emergency help should be sought immediately.

When to seek emergency help

When sinus infections don’t get better or if they get worse, it’s time to call a healthcare provider. In the extreme, certain situations will warrant a call to 911 or a visit to the emergency room. If you or someone you know is experiencing these symptoms, it’s time to seek emergency help:

  • Sudden high fever
  • Stiff neck
  • Vision changes
  • Muscle weakness or changes in feeling
  • Attack
  • Difficulty hearing or speaking
  • Headache

Conditions associated with sinus infection in the brain

Several conditions are associated with a sinus infection that has spread into the brain. They are:

  • Brain abscess
  • Meningitis
  • Encephalitis

A brain abscess is a collection of infectious material in the brain surrounded by tissue that forms a fluid-filled pocket. The infection develops when bacteria travel from the sinuses to the bloodstream and eventually to the brain.

Meningitis is inflammation of the meninges, the tissue that surrounds the spinal cord and brain. It occurs suddenly and the symptoms escalate quickly. Meningitis is a rare but very serious condition.

Encephalitis is inflammation of the brain. It can range from mild to severe, with most cases being mild.

What is encephalitis?

Encephalitis is when the brain becomes inflamed. Symptoms can range from mild and flu-like to much more severe. Serious symptoms may include:

  • Vision changes
  • Difficulty with speech or hearing
  • Personality changes
  • Loss of feeling
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Memory loss
  • Weakness
  • Attack

In the hospital: Treatment of a sinus infection in the brain

A sinus infection in the brain will need prompt medical treatment by healthcare providers. Treatment will depend on the cause of the infection and its severity.

Encephalitis and meningitis are treated aggressively to prevent brain damage from swelling. Several types of treatments are used. They include:

  • Antibiotics will be given through an intravenous (IV) line for a bacterial infection.
  • Antiviral agents such as acyclovir and ganciclovir can be used for viral infections.
  • Anticonvulsants used to prevent or stop seizures.
  • Corticosteroids used to minimize swelling in the brain.

In severe cases, a ventilator may be used to support the breathing of a person who is in respiratory distress.

A brain abscess is treated with medicine and possibly surgery. If the abscess is small, deep in the brain, or there are multiple abscesses, medication may be the only treatment. Surgery is also necessary when the pressure in the brain becomes too high, medicine does not work, the abscess is large or the abscess bursts open.

During surgery for a brain abscess, the neurosurgeon will open the skull, expose the area of ​​the brain near the abscess, and then drain the fluid from the abscess. If the abscess is deep in the brain, a needle aspiration may be used.

Recovering from a sinus infection that spreads to the brain

Once the infection is under control and the person has stabilized, healthcare providers will focus on their recovery. Recovery from a sinus infection that spreads to the brain will include treatment from a multidisciplinary team of therapists and providers. This includes:

Each provider and therapist will focus on a specific aspect of the body or body system. They will work to help the person regain their abilities lost from the infection.


A sinus infection is generally a minor inconvenience that goes away on its own or with antibiotics. However, it can cause serious complications if, in rare cases, it spreads to the brain. When this happens, the infection can cause meningitis, a brain abscess or encephalitis. Prompt medical treatment is necessary for these life-threatening complications.

Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts in our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable and trustworthy.

  1. MedlinePlus. Sinusitis.

  2. Mount Sinai. Sinusitis.

  3. MedlinePlus. Meningitis.

  4. MedlinePlus. Brain abscess.

  5. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Meningitis.

  6. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Encephalitis.

By Patty Weasler, RN, BSN

Patty is a trained nurse with over ten years of experience in acute pediatric care. Her passion is writing health and wellness content that everyone can understand and use.

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