Your Guide to Sinus Headaches: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment

Fact checked by Olga Sadouskaya, MD
Clinical Pharmacologist, Chief Medical Officer

Sinus headaches are a common type of headache that can be caused by a variety of factors, such as allergies, cold or flu, and stress.

If you are experiencing sinus headaches, it is important to understand the symptoms and possible causes in order to get relief. This guide provides an overview of sinus headaches, including their symptoms and treatment options.

What is a sinus headache?

Sinuses are the air-filled spaces inside your forehead, cheekbones, and behind the bridge of your nose.

The channels that drain them can get clogged when they become inflamed, often as a result of an allergic response or infection. Sinus pressure can build up and mimic a headache.

Sinus headaches are often characterized by a dull, continuous ache in your cheeks, forehead, or bridge of your nose. When you move your head quickly or strain, a sinus headache in the back of your head may feel more intense. If your sinus headache is the result of a sinus infection, you may also experience symptoms such as:

  • Pain
  • Stuffy nose
  • Loss of smell
  • Toothache in your upper jaw
  • Tiredness and fatigue
  • Green or yellow nasal discharge
  • Worsening of pain when you lean forward
  • Fullness or pressure in the cheek, brow, or forehead

What does a sinus headache feel like?

A sinus headache may feel like pain or pressure, not only in your head, but also elsewhere in the sinus region. Depending on which parts of your sinuses are impacted, you may experience discomfort in a variety of locations.

It is most typical to feel pressure behind and around the eyes, nose, and cheeks.

However, it is possible for this pressure to extend forward to the teeth and backward to the back of the head. When you touch certain regions, you may experience some discomfort.

A sinus headache may also give you a sensation of exhaustion or pain in your upper jaw. In addition to this, you might also develop redness or swelling of the cheeks, nose, or forehead.

A woman with a cold and a sinus headache

What causes a sinus headache?

Sinus headaches and sinusitis have the same origins and triggers. Among them are:

  • Infection by a virus. Sinusitis and sinus headaches almost always originate from a viral infection. Approximately 90 percent of those who get a cold have an element of sinusitis.
  • Infection due to harmful bacteria. This is a common source of prolonged symptoms after a viral illness.
  • Infection due to fungi. Individuals with weakened immune systems may be more susceptible to this.
  • Allergic reaction. Sinusitis is an inflammation of the sinuses that may be brought on by long-term allergies. Hay fever is the common name for this condition, which is medically known as rhinitis.
  • Structural abnormalities. Sinus drainage problems may be caused by nasal polyps, swollen adenoids, or a deviated septum. Nasal polyps are benign growths that may form inside the nose. If they expand, they could obstruct passageways.

Having a deviated septum means the wall that separates the two nasal chambers is asymmetrical. Consequently, this causes one side of the nose to be much smaller than the other, which may lead to congestion.

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Adenoids, which are little bumps of tissue in the nasal cavity, may swell and cause a variety of symptoms if they are not treated. If they’re overly large, they might block mucus from leaving the sinuses. This condition is more common among young children, especially those under 5 years old, because their sinuses are not completely matured.

Research from 2021 suggests that dental difficulties might be at the root of roughly 30 percent of instances of chronic sinusitis affecting both maxillary sinuses (the cheek sinuses).

For instance, if the upper teeth’s roots grow into the sinuses, this might lead to obstruction and chronic sinusitis.

Sinus headache vs. migraine: Is there a difference?

When most people think of headaches, they think of tension headaches or migraines. However, there is another type of headache that is often mistaken for these more common varieties: the sinus headache.

So, here’s an overview of the characteristics of a sinus headache vs. migraine.

Migraines are often accompanied by other symptoms, such as nausea, vomiting, and sensitivity to light and sound.

Sinus headaches, on the other hand, are usually localized to the face and are not accompanied by other symptoms.

In addition, migraines tend to be more severe than sinus headaches. Finally, migraines are often triggered by changes in weather or stress, while sinus headaches are triggered by allergies or infections.

So, the next time you have a headache, take a moment to consider whether it might be a sinus headache or a migraine.

If it’s a migraine, you may want to seek out medical help. There are several effective treatments available. If it’s a sinus headache, some over-the-counter medication should do the trick.

How to relieve a sinusitis headache

There are different methods that can help relieve a sinusitis headache. These include the following:

Over-the-counter medications

Many instances of sinusitis respond well to over-the-counter drugs. Pain relievers and cold remedies purchased over the counter may help ease the discomfort of a viral infection and clear up a stuffy or runny nose.

A common cause of headaches is allergies, which may be treated with over-the-counter medications. Nasal sprays containing saline to cleanse the nasal passages or decongestants may also be available over the counter. However, extended usage is not recommended unless directed by a physician.

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Prescription medications

If over-the-counter remedies are ineffective, your doctor may prescribe steroid sprays. Nasal sprays with antihistamines or steroids for allergies may alleviate inflammation and other symptoms.

Antibiotics may be prescribed by a doctor for bacterial illnesses that do not go better without treatment. If the illness is viral, antibiotics won’t help. Moreover, many sinus infections resolve on their own without antibiotic treatment, and you might not need any prescription medicine for a sinus headache.

Inappropriate usage of antibiotics may lead to harmful side effects and the development of drug-resistant microorganisms. A physician may advise waiting before prescribing medication to see if your sinus headache resolves on its own.

Medical procedures

Your health care provider may refer you to an ear–nose–throat (ENT) specialist if you experience chronic sinusitis or sinus headaches.

The ENT specialist will ask you about your symptoms, take a thorough medical history, and do a thorough facial and nasal examination to determine sinus headache pressure point relief.

To rule out any underlying structural issues, they may also order imaging tests of the head, such as X-rays, CT scans, or MRIs.

The ENT doctor may suggest functional endoscopic sinus surgery (FESS) if they feel it would be helpful. During FESS, the sinuses are dilated by either inflating a small balloon or removing a small piece of tissue blocking the route. The balloon is then popped by the doctor.

A woman inhaling steam to relieve a sinus headache

At-home treatments for a sinus headache

An infected sinus or allergy symptoms like a sinus headache may be treated at home, but only to a limited degree. Here’s how to treat a sinusitis headache at home:

Steam inhalation

Sinusitis sufferers may find relief with steam inhalation. Inhaling steam has been shown to alleviate sinus headache pain, but it may not improve other symptoms or prevent future headaches.

Saltwater solutions

The use of saltwater treatments to treat sinusitis has been supported by reputable sources. However, researchers claim there is not enough data to establish its usefulness or the optimal administration technique.

Pre-mixed saltwater solutions may be purchased and used in nasal rinsing kits. The other option is to create the remedy yourself at home.

Conclusion

Although sinus infections often clear up on their own without any treatment, you can try over-the-counter drugs to relieve sinus headaches. Migraine discomfort is sometimes misdiagnosed as a sinus headache. So, it is important to talk to a health care practitioner.

You should seek medical help if your sinus headache does not get better after 10 days or if you’ve tried home treatments for a sinus headache without good results.

December 22, 2022