Sniffles, Snot, and Sinuses, OH MY!

leafFall is in the air! A Kentucky Fall is an exciting time filled with beautiful colors, pumpkins to eat and carve, hot apple cider, tailgating at football games and scary haunted houses! But, if you’re like many Kentuckians, Fall is also a season that brings lots of suffering…suffering from allergies!

kyKentucky has been repeatedly ranked as one of the worst states for allergy sufferers and this is not surprising. With our diversity of trees and grasses, our immense amount of ragweed and our gorgeous Kentucky bluegrass it makes sense that so many of us are plagued with allergies here in our beautiful state. As a result, allergy sufferers may often feel a love-hate relationship with this particular time of year.

Even if you don’t suffer from seasonal allergies, it is likely that you have experienced the agony of a sinus infection. I’m talking about the fatigue, the facial pain, the headaches and watery eyes, the coughing, the sneezing, the runny nose, and the itchy eyes, mouth, and throat! Phew!!! The list of misery is neverending! If you know what I’m talking about then you, my friend, have had a sinus infection. And let me tell you, for those of you lucky ducks that haven’t experienced this “easy-going, not-that-bad, just-get-over-it” sickness, a sinus infection is anything but mild.

snot drizzleTypically, one can get over this debilitating illness quite quickly with some allergy medicine, hot tea, a neti-pot and by, of course, binge-watching your favorite show. But for some, the torment of a sinus infection is long-lasting. Chronic sinusitis (a sinus infection lasting longer than 8 weeks) affects thousands of Kentuckians every year. So, if you’ve often felt that you were left out in the dust when all of your friends, coworkers, and loved ones got over their sinus infections after a few weeks of suffering, leaving you to fend for yourself with your own chronic sinusitis, you’re not alone! In fact, our ancestors dealt with chronic sinusitis, too!

How do we know that our ancestors from thousands of years ago suffered from chronic sinus infections? We know by looking at their bones! You see, bones can only react to distress (an illness or injury, for example) in one of two ways; your bones can either build up more bone (add bone), or take away bone from the area that needs to be healed (subtract bone). In the case of chronic sinusitis bones do both.

bone girlIf you were to look at the sinuses of a person from say, 3500 years ago, that had suffered from chronic sinusitis you would be able to visually see the results of that on the bone itself. The bones of those suffering from chronic sinus infections change to try to cope with, and fend off, the infection. Sometimes in these cases the sinus bone adds bone in the form of little projections or ridge-like bone growths all along the sinus walls and floors. Other times, the bone subtracts bone in the sinuses and you can see small depressions or pitted areas of the bone in the sinuses indicating that the person suffered from chronic sinus infections.

Sinus infections aren’t just caused by allergies, however. They can be caused by many things! Things like cooking indoors, air-pollution, living in an urban and crowded environment, or infections of the upper respiratory system or mouth can lead to sinus infections. Some of our ancestors living in present-day Kentucky likely would have suffered from chronic sinus infections due to a number of different causes.

Our ancestors didn’t always live in permanent houses and some moved around quite a bit, but this doesn’t mean they weren’t exposed to pollutants much like today. We also know that dental health in the past was not great to say the least. It’s likely that much of the chronic sinusitis we see in the archaeological record was the result of a cavity or abscess that the person suffered from.

We can use archaeology and bioarchaeology (the study of bones in archaeology) to paint a picture of the lives of our ancestors and use this to understand how, or why, they may have suffered from chronic sinusitis. For example, we can use archaeology to understand their housing structures, where and what they cooked, and to learn how crowded, or not crowded, their settlements were. And, we can use bioarchaeology to look for bone changes in the ribs which would result from an upper respiratory infection, or to look for bone changes in the mouth and teeth which could result from cavities or abscesses to know if this attributed to their sinus infection. We can then combine all of this archaeological information to hypothesize why a particular individual would have suffered from chronic sinusitis.


Whether the cause is from allergies, pollution, living in the city or related to an upper respiratory infection, sinus infections are plain ol’ miserable. Maybe knowing that our ancestors dealt with runny noses and sinus headaches just like we do today will help us to feel a little better the next time we’re battling this wretched infection.

By: Briana R. Moore




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