Sinus headache occurs when the sinus passages behind your eyes, nose, cheeks, and forehead are congested. This causes pressure and pain. You might experience sinus headache on either or both sides of your head.
The International Classification of Headache Disorders no longer uses the term “sinus headache” because the term was too broad. But the term is still widely used by doctors and patients.
Other types of headache can feel similar to sinus headache, but a true sinus headache is rare. Sinus headache results from a sinus infection or inflammation of the sinuses, called sinusitis.
Sinus headache can happen seasonally if you have allergies, or only occasionally when your sinuses become triggered for some other reason. There are herbal remedies, over-the-counter (OTC) treatments, and prescription medications you can take to treat sinus headache.
Sinuses in head
The paranasal sinuses are hollow spaces in your skull around your eyes and nose. They serve to decrease the weight of your head, add resonance to your voice, protect your face against trauma, and control temperature inside your nose.
The sinuses also produce mucus, a thin liquid that traps bacteria, viruses, and allergens, preventing them from reaching the rest of your body. If too much mucus builds up, the trapped particles can cause a sinus infection or sinusitis.
The sinuses are prone to infection. They share a lining with your nose, so infections in the nose can easily spread to the sinuses.
Symptoms of inflamed sinuses accompany sinus headache. These symptoms include:
- nasal congestion
- runny nose
- green or yellow nasal discharge
- weakened sense of smell
- an uncomfortable pressure behind your forehead
- pain getting worse when you lean forward
What does sinus pressure feel like?
Pain or pressure is felt not just in your head, but anywhere in the sinus area. Where you feel pain depends on which sinuses are affected.
While pressure is most common behind and around the eyes, nose, and cheeks, it can extend forward to the teeth and backward to the back of the head. These areas will often be sensitive to touch.
Sometimes sinus headache can also give you a feeling of fatigue or aching in your top jaw. Redness and swelling of the cheeks, nose, or forehead can occur.
According to the American Migraine Foundation, 50 percent of migraine misdiagnoses start with a person thinking they have sinus headache. Up to 90 percent of people who go to the doctor for sinus headache find out they have migraine instead.
People with migraine may develop symptoms similar to sinusitis, like a runny nose or congestion. Migraine headaches also cause pain along the trigeminal nerve, which interacts with the sinus passages. People experiencing migraine may think this pain is related to the sinuses.
If you don’t have any of the symptoms that come specifically with a sinus headache, you may be experiencing a migraine. Migraine is treated differently from sinus headache. Symptoms specific to migraine include:
- sensitivity to light and sound
If you’re experiencing symptoms specific to migraine, you’re likely experiencing a migraine attack and not a sinus headache.
Sinusitis directly causes sinus headaches, so they share the same causes and triggers. These include:
- Viral infection. This is the most common cause of sinusitis and sinus headache. About
90 percentof people who who get a cold end up experiencing symptoms of sinusitis.
- Bacterial infection. This often occurs after a viral infection and can cause symptoms to last longer.
- Fungal infection. This may occur more often in people who are immunocompromised.
- Seasonal allergies. Allergies that last an extended period of time can cause the sinuses to become inflamed. This is called rhinitis, or hay fever.
- Structural differences. Things like nasal polyps, enlarged adenoids, or a deviated septum can prevent the sinuses from draining properly.
Doctors often recommend letting sinus infections resolve on their own. It’s actually best practice for adults not to receive medical treatment for acute sinusitis unless they experience certain symptoms, like fever, severe pain, or infection that lasts more than 7 days.
You can connect to a primary care doctor in your area using the Healthline FindCare tool.
If you have a sinus headache, thinning out the congestion trapped in your sinuses may help. Try running a humidifier or irrigating your sinuses with a saline solution to cleanse the area.
Breathing in steam may also help. Applying a warm, wet washcloth to the area of your sinuses may promote drainage and relieve pressure.
The American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery Foundation says that doctors may recommend some OTC medications to help manage symptoms. But these drugs don’t address the underlying inflammation that causes the pain you feel.
Analgesics like ibuprofen (Advil) and acetaminophen (Tylenol) can dull the pain you feel from a sinus headache. They also may treat other symptoms, like an achy jaw or fever. If your sinus headache gets worse or continues over the course of several days, discontinue using analgesics and speak with your doctor about what’s going on.
Decongestants like pseudoephedrine (Sudafed) won’t help clear your sinuses but may provide short-term relief from nasal congestion. Topical decongestants like oxymetazoline (Afrin) can cause rebound congestion after 3 days. Don’t take a decongestant for more than 3 days without talking with your doctor about your sinus blockage.
If a sinus infection is causing your sinus headache, your doctor may prescribe antihistamines, mucolytics (medications that clear your mucus), and decongestants. But your doctor won’t prescribe antibiotics unless you’re experiencing complications from sinusitis caused by a bacterial infection.
If it’s allergies causing your headaches, your doctor may prescribe antihistamines or corticosteroid shots.
There are alternative treatments that may help relieve sinus headache. Bromelain, a mixture of enzymes found in pineapple juice, may thin nasal secretions.
If you have a serious sinus infection, it’s important to remember that these treatment methods won’t cure the condition or provide instant relief.
The risk factors for sinus headache are the same for getting a sinus infection. Anyone can get them, but certain habits or health conditions can increase your risk. These include:
- structural differences, like a deviated septum or nasal polyps
- weakened immune system, sometimes as a result of chemotherapy
- cystic fibrosis, which causes mucus to build up in the respiratory system
- history of allergies
- nasal exposure to toxins like tobacco smoke or cocaine
- overuse of nasal decongestants
If you have reoccurring headaches as a symptom of sinusitis or seasonal allergies, you may need to consider prescription medication to manage the condition.
Lifestyle changes to reduce congestion, like avoiding allergens and incorporating aerobic exercise into your routine, might decrease how many headaches you get.
In cases of chronic sinusitis, a nasal surgery like a balloon sinuplasty might be the only way to stop getting more sinus headaches.
In rare cases, complications around the eye area can happen, resulting in the area being swollen and inflamed. This may even affect your vision.
If you have a high fever that persists, discolored nasal discharge, rattling in your chest, or difficulty breathing, see your doctor about these symptoms. While a sinus headache might seem like a harmless health condition, it’s important to determine its cause.
If you feel pressure or pain around your sinuses, don’t jump to the conclusion that you have a sinus headache. Take careful note of your symptoms and check for other signs of a sinus infection, like a fever or green nasal discharge.
If your sinus pain doesn’t subside, speak to your doctor about the pressure behind your eyes, forehead, or cheeks. There’s an array of treatment options that can help you find relief from your discomfort.