Sinus Headaches: Symptoms, Treatment, & Relief

By Ellen Fan, MD
Medically reviewed checkmarkMedically reviewed
January 18, 2020

Sinus problems are a common complaint, and sometimes with sinus problems come headaches. As uncomfortable as sinusitis can be–with nasal congestion or runny nose, sinus pressure or pain, and on occasion, fatigue or fever–it can be more miserable with a headache.

What Is a Sinus Headache?

Your sinuses are the hollow cavities that connect to your nasal passages. When they become inflamed, they swell and create more mucus. When this happens, the passageways that allow the sinuses to drain become blocked. This can lead to pain or pressure throughout your cheeks, nose, eyes, and/or forehead, depending on which sinus cavity is affected. Other common symptoms include nasal drainage (watery or thick), nasal congestion or blockage, change in being able to taste or smell, tooth pain, fatigue, fever, or chills. Sometimes, it can also lead to headache.

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Sinus inflammation has a lot of causes. Acute sinusitis due to a virus, which is typically called an “upper respiratory infection” or a “common cold”, comes on quickly and then gets better by 1-2 weeks. When the symptoms persist or worsen after one week, sometimes seeming to slightly get better before getting worse again, it may be a sign that a bacterial infection has set in. Very rarely, and usually in people with conditions that weaken the immune system, a fungal infection may cause sinusitis.

Many people suffer from chronic sinusitis, or chronic sinus inflammation, typically lasting at least three months. Chronic sinusitis is often caused by allergies, environmental irritants, or something that affects proper drainage of the sinus cavities.

Sinus Headache Symptoms

Sinus headache symptoms include:

  • Pain or pressure in the sinus areas
  • Stuffy nose
  • Loss of smell
  • Fatigue
  • Achiness in upper teeth
  • Fever
  • Post-nasal drip

Sinus Headache vs. Migraine

Sinus headaches are often confused with migraines. In fact, about 90% of people who report sinus headaches actually have migraine headaches.

A true sinus headache should improve with treatment of the underlying sinus problem. If it does not improve, the headaches may actually be due to migraine.

Individuals with migraines may also experience symptoms that are not usually present in sinus headaches, including:

  • Nausea
  • Light or noise sensitivity
  • Headache that is throbbing in nature and only on one side of the head

How to Treat a Sinus Headache

The best way to get rid of a sinus headache is by treating the underlying cause of the headache–the sinusitis. For sinus problems lasting less than 7-10 days, the cause is usually viral and can be treated with home remedies and if needed, over-the-counter (OTC) medications. Here are some at-home remedies that may relieve your symptoms:

  • Hydrate and rest: Drink ample fluids and rest.
  • Breathing steam: Warm moist air by using a humidifier, breathing in warm mist from a hot shower or steaming bath, or applying a warm washcloth over your face.
  • Saline nasal flushes: Using a bottle sprayer, Neti pot, or syringe, the saline fluid flushes out the nose and sinus cavities to help with sinus pressure and congestion. Be sure to use sterile saline water for safety reasons.

In addition to those at-home treatments, you may also require:

  • Over-the-counter (OTC) medications: Medications such as ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil), naprosyn (Aleve), and acetaminophen (Tylenol) can lessen pain and inflammation. Please be cautious with these medications if you have liver, kidney, or blood pressure issues, or are on blood thinners.
  • Decongestants: If you do not have high blood pressure, heart disease, or glaucoma, decongestants like phenylephrine or pseudoephedrine can also help minimize congestion and sinus pain.
  • Doctor’s visit: If the sinus problems still have not gone away after 7-10 days (and may even be getting worse), it may be a sign of bacteria causing your sinus infection, and you should see your doctor who may recommend an antibiotic.

Long-standing sinus problems, or chronic sinusitis, often will last three months or more. They are usually not due to infection, and are managed by avoiding triggers, flushing sinuses with sterile saline, and using medications such as steroid nasal sprays, and antihistamine pills. Common triggers include smoke, perfume, and allergens such as dust mites, pollen, and pet dander or hair. If chronic sinus problems do not improve with multiple medications, your doctor may recommend further evaluation with a test like a CT scan, and/or referral to a specialist, like an ear-nose-throat or allergy doctor.

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When to See a Doctor

You should see a doctor if your sinus infection does not improve or worsens after 7-10 days of home remedies, which may be a sign of a bacterial infection that requires antibiotics.

Symptoms of sinus infections usually go away completely within four weeks. However it is important to watch for the following symptoms, which may be from a more serious, life-threatening disease and require emergency evaluation:

  • Eye problems like vision changes, double vision, difficulty opening the eyes
  • High fever that doesn’t go away
  • Severe headaches, confusion

If you are unsure whether you have a sinus headache or migraine, a medical consultation can be helpful.  You should also consider seeing a doctor if you have chronic sinusitis that is not improving with medication.

K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

Ellen Fan, MD

Dr. Fan has a Bachelors of Arts degree in Human Biology and a Doctorate in Medicine from Stanford University. In addition to her work with K Health, Dr. Fan is a primary care physician in Indianapolis, Indiana.

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