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Sinusitis is one of several conditions that qualify for a VA rating and disability compensation. Although it shares some symptoms with allergic rhinitis and other respiratory conditions, sinusitis is a separate condition that can affect military service personnel, especially Gulf War veterans. Military veterans can develop sinusitis from several service-connected conditions and the illness causes a range of symptoms.
14 Symptoms of Sinusitis
Sinus pressure or pain
Pressure in the ears
Altered sense of smell or taste
Facial tenderness or swelling
Thick, colored nasal discharge
The VA considers respiratory conditions like sleep apnea, asthma, and sinusitis as potential disabilities that affect veterans. When a veteran submits a VA claim for disability benefits based on a chronic sinusitis diagnosis, the VA will review the claim, the veteran’s symptoms, and medical evidence. Then, it assigns a sinusitis VA rating to the veteran which may lead to disability compensation.
Some forms of sinusitis can be debilitating, causing chronic, frequent symptoms and potential emergency care or hospital visits. Veterans who were susceptible to burn pit exposure may be able to get a presumptive service connection for their sinusitis diagnosis and claim.
What Is Sinusitis?
Sinusitis is a condition that affects the sinuses, which make up a large part of the face. These spaces reside near the cheekbones, eyes, and forehead, and are responsible for making the mucus that lines the interior of your nasal passage. Sometimes, the sinuses become blocked, making them unable to drain properly. When the built-up fluid becomes infected, the sinuses can become inflamed and irritated, resulting in a sinus infection, or sinusitis.
According to the CDC, 11.6% of American adults are diagnosed with sinusitis. A veteran can receive VA disability benefits for sinusitis if they have a medical diagnosis and severe, chronic symptoms that interfere with daily life.
Sinusitis can either be acute or chronic. Acute sinusitis is a temporary form of the condition that can cause the same symptoms as chronic sinusitis but with less persistence. Veterans with acute sinusitis may have symptoms and inflammation that last up to a few weeks as a result of a bacterial or viral sinus infection.
Sometimes, several bouts of acute sinusitis can lead to chronic sinusitis because it can cause persistent inflammation.
Chronic sinusitis can present with all the symptoms of acute sinusitis except that it tends to last much longer than a period of acute sinusitis. While acute sinusitis might cause symptoms for a few weeks, chronic sinusitis can last as long as 12 weeks or more with little to no relief.
Some people with chronic sinusitis get such bad infections that they require emergency care or hospital visits to treat their symptoms.
When to See a Doctor for Sinusitis
Sinusitis can start with just a few small symptoms that don’t interfere with daily life for a day or so. Other bouts of sinusitis hit hard and fast, causing severe breathing problems from the start.
There are no definitive rules on when to contact your doctor if you believe you have sinusitis. However, it’s a good idea to call if you’re having difficulty breathing, swelling on the face, especially around the eyes and forehead, double vision, a severe headache, a stiff neck, or a fever. These symptoms may signal a serious infection that needs to be treated quickly.
With other less intense forms of sinusitis, a doctor’s visit may still be warranted if your symptoms do not seem to be improving or are getting worse after a few days. Mayo Clinic also suggests checking with your doctor if you have sinusitis frequently and treatments don’t seem to be improving it.
Treatments for Sinusitis
Sinusitis treatments vary depending on the cause. A doctor will usually try to treat the underlying cause of sinusitis first. For instance, environmental allergies might trigger sinusitis, and allergy shots or nasal decongestants could be the first course of treatment to reduce sinusitis symptoms. However, bacterial sinusitis may need antibiotics to kill the infection.
Your doctor may also treat sinusitis on a symptomatic basis to help you find some relief. If you’re getting intense headaches, your physician might prescribe a pain reliever, or they could inject corticosteroids to reduce inflammation of your sinuses.
For veterans with chronic sinusitis, surgery may be the last resort. Your doctor might suggest surgery if you have frequent sinusitis infections that cause severe symptoms. This treatment is usually reserved for cases in which imaging detects a blockage in the sinuses or narrowed nasal passages that could be causing symptoms.
Common Causes of Sinusitis
The following causes of sinusitis are some of the most common triggers:
Respiratory Tract Infections
Respiratory tract infections affect the way the respiratory system functions. Common symptoms of these infections include a stuffy or runny nose, cough, headache, and a feeling of breathlessness or chest tightening. Incurring these infections frequently can lead to chronic sinusitis, but even one respiratory tract infection may cause sinusitis.
Sinusitis can affect anyone, but active duty service members and veterans could be more vulnerable than the general population because of their daily duties in military service.
One such trigger that affects military service members more than others is airborne irritants. Military exposure to chemicals and toxins in the air is common while testing or repairing equipment or fighting overseas. These irritants can harm the nasal passages, causing acute or chronic bouts of sinusitis.
Burn pit exposure is another VA disability sinusitis risk factor for veterans, especially those who served in the Gulf War. These veterans sometimes experience Gulf War syndrome, which includes several symptoms tied to their military service, some of which may have been caused by burn pits.
Veterans who were exposed to burn pits during their service and have since developed sinusitis could have a presumptive disability under VA rules.
Allergies are a leading cause of sinusitis because of their ability to irritate the sinuses frequently and for prolonged periods. Technically referred to as allergic rhinitis, allergies sometimes mimic the symptoms of sinusitis, making it difficult to tell which condition a veteran may have.
For VA disability sinusitis benefits, a veteran with allergies and sinusitis should have medical evidence proving both so that the VA can determine an accurate disability rating for compensation.
The septum is the thin wall that sits between your nostrils. A deviated septum refers to a septum that is crooked or displaced to one side, which can cause breathing issues due to narrowed nasal passages. The condition sometimes occurs with a broken nose or nose injury.
Over time, deviated septum symptoms can contribute to nasal irritation and sinusitis. Severe conditions sometimes require surgical treatment.
Nasal polyps are growths within the nasal passages. Though they’re benign and usually painless, they cause blockages in the nasal passages that can make it difficult to breathe and cause other sinus-related issues, including sinusitis. Some treatments can shrink polyps, but more severe conditions could require surgical polyp removal or widening of the nasal passages.
Other Medical Conditions
Other medical conditions you have could also lead to sinusitis. For example, any conditions that weaken the immune system, such as HIV, can make it more difficult for your body to fight sinus infections. Tooth infections can also cause fluid buildup in the sinuses, which can also become infected and cause sinusitis.
Can Sinusitis Cause Sleep Apnea?
Sleep apnea is a condition that causes irregular breathing patterns during sleep. Often, a person with sleep apnea will stop breathing on occasion while sleeping. Over time, the condition can affect your heart rhythm and increase your risk of metabolic syndrome, liver problems, type 2 diabetes, and high blood pressure.
Sleep apnea can be considered a secondary disability to sinusitis, meaning that the condition may stem from sinusitis complications. For example, a veteran with service-connected sinusitis caused by burn pit exposure and related airborne toxins may also develop sleep apnea. Based on medical evidence and diagnoses, the VA will likely consider sleep apnea as a secondary disability to sinusitis.
Sinusitis can lead to sleep apnea because of the intrusive congestion it may cause. Sinusitis can sometimes come with purulent discharge, which can clog the airways, especially when in a reclined sleeping position. Congestion is a leading cause of sleep apnea.
Veterans who develop sleep apnea after already submitting a claim for sinusitis may add their medical evidence for sleep apnea using a secondary service-connected claim. The secondary service-connected claim provides evidence and information for a service-connected disability with ties to the disability the VA already knows about.
VA Disability Rating for Sinusitis
VA disability sinusitis ratings vary for veterans depending on their symptoms and whether their sinusitis is acute or chronic. Typically, the VA will only approve a VA disability claim for chronic sinusitis, as the condition can be long-term or permanent.
As of 2021, the VA began using a presumptive service connection process for eligible veterans who could have been exposed to sinusitis-causing pollution during their service. These veterans must have served in one of the Southeast Asia military service areas, including Afghanistan and Syria, and have developed chronic sinusitis within ten years of their service.
Veterans must have a confirmed medical diagnosis of chronic sinusitis to file a VA claim. They also must provide evidence of a connection of the condition to their service, whether caused or worsened by their military service.
The Veterans Benefits Administration may also provide a VA disability rating for chronic sinusitis that’s a secondary condition to another condition with a service connection. For instance, chronic sinusitis can stem from allergies, and a veteran’s allergies may have been a result of burn pit exposure during their service. In this case, the VA may consider sinusitis as a secondary service-connected condition for veterans’ benefits and additional disability compensation.
Typically, the VA rates chronic sinusitis as 0%, 10%, 30%, or 50%. To receive at least a 10% VA disability rating, the veteran must experience at least one or two long-lasting, incapacitating sinusitis episodes annually that require antibiotics. A 30% is determined with three or more episodes, and a 50% rating is reserved for veterans with frequent episodes or those requiring surgery as treatment.
Applying for VA Disability Sinusitis
Veterans Affairs may consider chronic sinusitis as a primary or secondary disability for disability compensation. Veterans can apply for VA disability benefits for chronic sinusitis by visiting their regional VA office, calling the VA, mailing in their forms, or filling out online forms. Each veteran should provide ample medical evidence to prove their diagnosis, condition’s severity, and connection to their military service.
For help filing your disability claim for VA benefits, consider working with a VA disability lawyer, especially one who’s experienced in claims for VA disability sinusitis. Your lawyer can help you gather the paperwork you’ll need for a claim, file your claim, and inform you of your claim’s status and, if necessary, the appeals process.