4 Occupations Prone to Sinus Trouble

By: Dave Roos

The aching, the pressure, the congestion — sinus trouble is a serious pain. The good news is that most of us only have to deal with it when our allergies flare up and during the height of cold and flu season. But for an unlucky few, going to work can actually be at the heart of ongoing sinus troubles.

Your sinuses are a series of interconnected spaces behind the bones surrounding your eyes and nose. The scientific jury is still out on exactly how important our sinuses are and what they do for us, but we do know that they're lined with moist, protective mucus. Sinus troubles usually start when one or more of the passages between the sinus cavities becomes blocked. This blockage is usually caused by inflammation of the sinus lining due to a host of causes, including viruses, bacteria, allergies and pollutants. When sinuses are blocked, the backed-up mucus causes headaches, facial pain and general yuckiness [source: Nelson].


A seasonal sinus back-up is bad enough, but imagine if your job also had the potential to stop up your sinuses. Keep reading for five occupations that are particularly prone to sinus problems.

4: Flight Attendant


As if it's not hard enough to deal with aggravated passengers day in and day out, flight attendants are also prone to sinus troubles. On the job, they're continually exposed to two powerful causes of sinus problems: changes in air pressure and exceptionally dry air.

Airplane cabins are pressurized to maintain comfortable oxygen levels even as the plane climbs past altitudes higher than Mt. Everest. But cabin pressure doesn't stay at sea level throughout the flight. For example, at 30,000 feet (9 kilometers) the air pressure in the cabin feels more like 7,000 feet (2 kilometers) [source: Larson]. That means when you're on the flight, the air pressure in the cabin changes dramatically — and then, unless you live way up in the mountains, the pressure at cruising altitude is not necessarily what your body is used to.


The difference between the air pressure in the cabin and the air pressure inside your ears and sinuses can cause discomfort in passengers and flight attendants alike. It even has a name — barotrauma. If you already have a cold or sinus congestion, those changes in pressure can aggravate sinus troubles, turning mild facial pressure into a painful headache. The good news is that sinus congestion and pressure can be treated with over-the-counter decongestants like SUDAFED® to keep the sinuses clearer, which should — fingers crossed — keep the pressure from building up too far [source: UPMC].

On the dry air front: Airplane cabin air is dryer than the Sahara Desert, with moisture content from 1 to 15 percent [source: Campbell]. Prolonged exposure to such a dry environment can inflame and block sinuses, even if you don't have an underlying cold.

A 2014 survey of flight attendants found that nearly 30 percent of them reported sinus congestion lasting five to seven days over the previous week — the most common health problem reported in the survey. More than half reported sinus problems that had required medical attention during the previous 12 months [source: McNeely et al].

3: Scuba Diving Instructor

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The sinuses of scuba divers get a real workout, both during the descent to the depths and while returning to the surface. Like flight attendants, scuba divers must learn how to equalize pressure in their sinuses as they experience rapid changes in water and air pressure. If the sinuses are blocked by inflammation, divers can experience serious sinus pain, a bloody nose or worse.

You've probably heard of "the bends" or decompression sickness caused by a rapid ascent from a deep dive. Far less dangerous, but still painful, is "the squeeze," the diving world's nickname for barotrauma.


When a scuba diver descends, air should move freely through the sinuses, equalizing their internal pressure. But if there's a blockage, the air inside the sinus will contract in volume or get "squeezed." The squeeze pulls on the sinus walls, drawing out mucus, tissue and blood that partially fills the sinus cavity. If the loosened mucus and blood don't drain during ascent (causing a messy bloody nose), it could fester in the blocked sinus, attracting more bacteria and viruses.

The opposite problem happens if a diver's sinus gets blocked on ascent. The air will expand in the blocked passage, putting increased pressure on the sinus walls, which usually results in nothing more than a bad headache but could rupture the sinus wall in severe cases.

2: Carpenter

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An irritated sinus is an unhappy sinus, and some of the worst sinus irritants are airborne particles and pollutants. Air quality at work is a major public health concern, and one of the occupations that is most exposed to polluted air on the job is carpentry. All of that airborne sawdust can really mess with your respiratory system and your sinuses.

The sinuses are designed to trap airborne particles in their mucus-lined walls and flush foreign material down the throat before it can enter the lungs. But when the sinuses are exposed to heavily polluted air, such as clouds of sawdust, the sinus walls can become inflamed and the mucus even thicker. Both of these conditions can lead to blockages of the sinus canals, which can trigger painful back-ups.


1: Firefighter


Firefighters put their lives at risk every time they rush to answer an emergency call. What most people don't know is that smoke inhalation is the most common cause of death from a fire, not burns or injuries from the fire itself. Smoke is composed of extremely small but highly irritating particles that can damage the lungs and sinuses, even when inhaled in small amounts.

Firefighters take precautions to limit their exposure to smoke, wearing professional-grade smoke masks and breathing apparatus at the scene of a fire. They know that repeated smoke inhalation can lead to a host of health problems, including chronic sinus swelling and blockage. But even with all those precautions in place, firefighters are still exposed to irritants any time they fight a fire.


Smoke from a fire can be a problem for folks who don't fight them for a living, too. If you're exposed to smoke from a nearby forest or building fire, remember that conventional paper dust masks aren't designed to filter out fine smoke particles. You're better off staying indoors as much as possible until the smoke clears [source: EPA].

Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • American Cancer Society. "Nasal Cavity and Paranasal Sinuses Cancer." (July 19, 2016) http://www.cancer.org/cancer/nasalcavityandparanasalsinuscancer/detailedguide/nasal-cavity-and-paranasal-sinuses-cancer-risk-factors
  • American Family Physician. "Sinus Infections." Nov. 1, 2004 (July 19, 2016) http://www.aafp.org/afp/2004/1101/p1711.html
  • Campbell, Walter. "How the Aircraft Cabin Environment Affects You." Health for Flight Crews (July 19, 2016) http://www.healthforflightcrews.com/cabin.html
  • EPA Office of Air and Radiation. "How Smoke from Fires Can Affect Your Health." May 2003 (July 19, 2016) https://airnow.gov/index.cfm?action=smoke.index
  • Gardner, Amanda. "Sinus trouble? Secondhand smoke may be to blame." Health.com. April 19, 2010 (July 19, 2016) http://www.cnn.com/2010/HEALTH/04/19/secondhand.smoke.sinus/
  • Larson, George C. "How Things Work: Cabin Pressure." Air & Space. Jan. 2002 (July 19, 2016) http://www.airspacemag.com/flight-today/how-things-work-cabin-pressure-2870604/?no-ist
  • McNeely, Eileen et al. "The Self-reported Health of U.S. Flight Attendants Compared to the General Population." Environmental Health. 2014. (7/25/2016). https://ehjournal.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1476-069X-13-13
  • Nelson, Jennifer. "What Causes Sinus Problems?" WebMD (July 19, 2016) http://www.webmd.com/allergies/features/causes-sinus-problems
  • UPMC Healthbeat. "Don't Let Barotrauma be a Pain this Summer." July 15, 2014 (July 19, 2016) http://share.upmc.com/2014/07/dont-let-barotrauma-pain-summer/