Sinus Headaches: Triggers, Treatment, and Timing

Are you having a sinus headache or something else?

Saline nasal spray may ease sinus congestion and pain
Saline nasal spray may ease sinus congestion and pain. Glow Wellness/Getty Images

Each year, nearly 30 million adults—more than one in eight Americans—experience sinus headaches.

Sinus headaches take their name from the sinuses, which consist of two sets of cavities, located on either side of the head. These cavities stretch from the center of the forehead and below the eyes toward the temples.

Under normal circumstances, your nasal passages produce mucus that drains down the sinuses into the nose, lubricating the nasal canals. But when a sinus headache strikes, it's usually the result of sinusitis, the inflammation of the sinus membranes.

Sinus Headache Symptoms

Sinus headaches can be the most debilitating headaches because they are accompanied by other symptoms that can alter your ability to perform daily functions. In addition to the pain and pressure experienced in or around the forehead, cheeks, and nose, sinus headaches may be accompanied by

  • Congestion
  • Cough
  • Runny nose
  • Sore throat
  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Sneezing

Moreover, if you're experiencing a sinus headache, you may also notice thick nasal discharge that is yellow-green in color or tinged with blood. Post-nasal drip too is common, which is that sensation of mucus trickling down the back of your throat.

Cause of Sinusitis

Sinusitis can develop for a variety of reasons, including exposure to a cold or flu virus, or from an allergic reaction to pollen, mold, dust or smoke. Conditions that impair breathing, including asthma, cystic fibrosis or other chronic conditions, can also be a factor in sinus headache development.

That said, the most common cause of sinusitis is when mucus in clogged sinuses becomes infected with a bacteria or virus, causing pressure changes that trigger pain.

Rarely, a person may experience recurring sinus headaches due to structural abnormalities in their nasal cavity.

Migraine or Sinus Headache

Migraines can feel similar to sinus headaches, with pain behind the eyes that worsens if the person bends forward. But people with migraines are often highly sensitive to noise and bright light, which do not affect those with sinus headaches. In addition, migraine pain tends to be concentrated in the temples and often on only one side of the head.

Still, you may find it difficult to distinguish between a sinus headache and a migraine. In fact, one study found that approximately three-quarters of patients reporting sinus headaches also meet the International Headache Society criteria for a migraine.

Sinus Headache Diagnosis

If you experience sinus headache symptoms, you should contact your doctor if:

  • Pain is not relieved with over-the-counter remedies
  • Symptoms last longer than seven days
  • Fever is higher than 100.4 degrees

When consulting your doctor, he will ask about symptoms you are experiencing and perform a physical exam. The doctor may also test mucus samples for bacteria or examine your nasal passages with a thin, light-tipped instrument called an endoscope.

If the sinusitis is caused by irritants such as smoke, pollen or dust, rather than by bacteria, your doctor may prescribe a corticosteroid nasal spray, which is designed to reduce the sinus swelling that is responsible for the headache pain.

Sinus Headache Treatment

In the case of a sinus headache, over-the-counter (OTC) pain relief, such as aspirin, Tylenol (acetaminophen), or Motrin or Advil (ibuprofen), can help relieve symptoms. In addition, other remedies that can ease your discomfort include:

The most effective treatment for bacterial sinus infections is antibiotics, which need to be taken for the full duration to ensure that all the bacteria is eradicated. Eliminating the bacterial infection should also put an end to the sinus headaches.

A Word From Verywell

Sinus headaches can be tricky to diagnose, as they may mimic a tension-type headache or a migraine. If you are experiencing recurrent "sinus headaches" it's sensible to consider visiting an ear, nose, and throat specialist and an allergist.

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Article Sources
  • Center for Disease Control and Prevention. National Center for Health Statistics. (2017). Chronic Sinusitis.
  • Patel ZM, Setzen M, Poetker DM, DelGaudio JM. Evaluation and management of "sinus headache" in the otolaryngology practice. Otolaryngol Clin North Am. 2014 Apr;47(2):269-87.