Genetics of Chronic Sinus Infections

Chronic sinus infections, also known as sinusitis or rhinosinusitis, affect about 10% of the European and American populations. While most people have experienced sinus pain as a result of a head cold, for some people, this problem lasts for months.

This article investigates the genetic causes of chronic sinus infections in some people.

Chronic Sinus Infections

Doctors define chronic rhino-sinusitis as having inflamed sinuses (stuffiness, nasal discharge, and changes in the ability to smell) for 12 weeks or more. For many people, this can start with allergies or a cold that turns into a sinus infection that lingers on, never really clearing up and flaring up again periodically.

Chronic sinus infections often correlate with allergic rhinitis, frequent colds, atopic dermatitis, and asthma.[ref]

Your nose is constantly bringing in bacteria, fungi, and viruses. The first line of defense is the mucous membranes and cilia that clear out the particles coming into the nose.[ref]

In most people, the acute infection from a pathogen is not what continues to cause chronic sinus problems (defined as 12+ weeks). Instead, inflammation in the sinuses continues after a triggering episode (allergies, fungus, pathogen, etc.).[ref]

Ciliated cells in the nose help to move inhaled pathogens. Creative Commons License. ref

How do your genes influence sinus infections?

Genetics plays a role in the likelihood of having chronic sinus problems. The genetic component can range from genes that influence your inflammatory response to the mutations that cause cystic fibrosis or ciliary diseases.[ref]

When researchers investigate how genetics influences the risk of a condition, such as chronic sinus infections, they can go at this a couple of ways.

First, they can investigate whether specific genetic variants or mutations are more common in people with the condition. For example, researchers can look at people who carry one copy of the mutations that cause cystic fibrosis to see if they are linked to sinus infections. Or they can investigate genes related to the immune response.

Another way to look at genetic connections is to do a ‘genome-wide association study’. These research studies involve looking at the whole genome of a large number of people and seeing if there is anything different about people with a particular condition. Lots of computing power is needed for these studies!

Genetics studies on chronic sinus infections:

Genome-wide studies link bitter taste receptor variants to susceptibility to chronic sinus infections.

You may be thinking – taste receptors in your nose? Researchers have discovered that taste receptors are found throughout the body and perform different functions. In your mouth, taste receptors are chemosensors abundant in taste bud cells. But in the nasal and sinus cavities, these same receptors can detect secreted bacterial products and modulate the immune response.[ref]

The TAS2R38 gene codes for a bitter taste receptor. A fairly common variant in this gene causes some people not to taste certain bitter flavors. This lack of taste drives food preferences, to some extent, for things like bitter vegetables, coffee, and scotch. In the airways, though, it is thought that the TAS2R receptors are important for sensing certain gram-negative bacteria, including Pseudomonas aeruginosa, a multi-drug resistant pathogen.[ref]

When the TAS2R38 receptor is activated in the nasal passages, it causes the secretion of nitric oxide. The increase in nitric oxide causes two things to happen: first, it increases the movement of cilia in the nose; and second, it can directly kill bacteria.[ref]

Ciliated cells containing T2R38 (bitter taste receptors) cause NO to be released. Creative Commons Image License. ref

Nasal polyps are a risk factor for chronic sinus infections. A genetic variant that causes the ALOX15 gene not to function is associated with a greatly decreased risk of both nasal polyps and chronic sinus infections. The ALOX15 gene codes for an enzyme that is important in the metabolism of polyunsaturated fats. It is also important in the inflammatory response to certain pathogens, including pathogens that cause periodontal disease, peritonitis, sepsis, and atherosclerosis.[ref]

Cystic fibrosis is a genetic disease causing an alteration to the thickness of mucous in the lungs, gut, and nasal passages. One complication of cystic fibrosis is chronic sinus infections, including those with drug-resistant P. aeruginosa. It is a big problem for people with cystic fibrosis because the pathogen can spread from the nose to the lungs, causing serious lung infections.[ref]

Alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency is another genetic disease linked to an increased risk of chronic sinus infections. Mutations in the SERPINA1 gene cause alterations to the alpha-1 antitrypsin enzyme, which is active in the lungs at all times but is also part of the immune response against infections. People with Alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency are at a greater risk for chronic rhinosinusitis.[ref]

Increased inflammatory response, both to pathogens and overall inflammation is also implicated in chronic sinus infections. While many inflammatory cytokine-related genetic variants have been investigated, only a few studies have been replicated in more than one population group. However, the TNF-alpha variants have been found to increase the risk of chronic sinus infections in several studies. The TNF gene codes for tumor necrosis factor-alpha, which is a major player in the regulation of immune cells.


Genetic Variants and Chronic Sinus Infections:

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TAS2R38 Gene: codes for a bitter taste receptor

Check your genetic data for rs10246939 (23andMe v4, v5; AncestryDNA):

  • C/C: Can taste bitter (such as in broccoli); less likely to have chronic sinus infections[ref]
  • C/T: Probably can taste some bitter;
  • T/T: Unable to taste some bitter flavors; more likely to have chronic sinus infections.

Members: Your genotype for rs10246939 is .

Check your genetic data for rs713598 (23andMe v.4 and v.5; AncestryDNA):

  • G/G: Can taste bitter in broccoli, etc.[ref] less likely to have chronic sinus infections[ref]
  • C/G: Probably can taste bitter
  • C/C: Probably unable to taste some bitter flavors

Members: Your genotype for rs713598 is .

NOS1 gene: codes for nitric oxide synthase 1, which helps kill bacteria in the nose.

Check your genetic data for rs9658281 (23andMe v4; AncestryDNA):

  • T/T: decreased risk of chronic sinus infections[ref][ref]
  • C/T: decreased risk of chronic sinus infections
  • C/C: typical

Members: Your genotype for rs9658281 is .

ALOX15 gene: encodes an enzyme important in the metabolism of polyunsaturated fats and modulation of the immune response.

Check your genetic data for rs34210653 (23andMe v4, v5):

  • A/A: significantly reduced risk for nasal polyps, chronic sinus infections[ref]
  • A/G: significantly reduced risk for nasal polyps, chronic sinus infections
  • G/G: typical

Members: Your genotype for rs34210653 is .

IL1RL1 gene: encodes the interleukin-1 receptor, which is important in the immune response.

Check your genetic data for rs13431828 (AncestryDNA):

  • T/T: protective against chronic sinus infections[ref]
  • C/T: protective against chronic sinus infections
  • C/C: typical

Members: Your genotype for rs13431828 is .

SERPINA1 gene: codes for alpha-1 antitrypsin

Check your genetic data for rs1243168 (23andMe v4, v5):

  • A/A: 6-fold increased risk of chronic rhinosinusitis[ref]
  • A/G: typical risk
  • G/G: typical

Members: Your genotype for rs1243168 is .

TNF gene: codes for TNF-alpha, which regulates immune response

Check your genetic data for rs1800629  308G>A (23andMe v4, v5; AncestryDNA):

  • A/A: increased TNF-alpha, increased risk of nasal polyps, sinus infections[ref]
  • A/G: increased TNF-alpha, increased risk of nasal polyps, sinus infections[ref]
  • G/G: typical

Members: Your genotype for rs1800629 is .

Cystic Fibrosis: Check out the article on carrier status for genetic diseases.

Alpha-1 Antitrypsin Deficiency: Check out the article on the alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency mutations.


Lifehacks for chronic sinus infections:

Neti pot or nasal irrigation:

Many studies show that nasal irrigation statistically improves chronic sinus infections. There are several ways to do sinus irrigations, including using a neti pot. Make sure only to use distilled water for your saline rinse.[ref][ref][ref]

Iodine rinse: One study found that a 0.08% diluted povidone-iodine solution reduced sinus infection symptoms in patients with ‘recalcitrant’ infections.[ref] Look for a  package for sinus rinse or a prepared solution labeled for sinus infections. Povidone-iodine is also called betadine.

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About the Author:
Debbie Moon is the founder of Genetic Lifehacks. Fascinated by the connections between genes, diet, and health, her goal is to help you understand how to apply genetics to your diet and lifestyle decisions. Debbie has a BS in engineering and an MSc in biological sciences from Clemson University. Debbie combines an engineering mindset with a biological systems approach to help you understand how genetic differences impact your optimal health.