Sinus headaches cause a dull, deep, throbbing pain in the front of your head and face. They are caused by an inflammation in your sinuses, air-filled cavities around your nose, eyes, and cheeks. Bending down or leaning over usually makes the pain worse, as does cold and damp weather.
Sinus headaches often begin first thing in the morning, and may be better by afternoon. Sinus headaches can be difficult to diagnose, however, because symptoms are similar to tension headaches and migraines.
Signs and Symptoms
Sinus headaches typically have the following symptoms:
- Pressure-like pain in one specific area of your face or head (for example, behind your eyes)
- Face is tender to the touch
- Pain is worse with sudden movements of the head and bending forward
- Pain is worse in the morning because mucus collects and drains through the night
- Sudden temperature changes, like going out into the cold from a warm room, worsen the pain
- Headache often starts when you have a bad cold or just after
- Congested or runny nose
Other symptoms may be related to sinus inflammation (sinusitis):
- Postnasal drip with sore throat (pharyngitis)
- Yellow or green discharge from your nose
- Red and swollen nasal passages (nasal congestion)
- Mild-to-moderate fever
- A sense of not feeling well
- Pain in upper teeth
Migraines may feel worse when you bend forward and can be accompanied by nasal congestion. But a migraine is more likely to be made worse by noise or light, and to be accompanied by nausea.
Sinus headaches can be caused by sinus congestion and inflammation, called sinusitis. Sinusitis, in turn, is caused by either a respiratory infection, such as a cold or flu, or allergies, like hay fever.
Healthy sinuses allow mucus to drain and air to circulate throughout the nasal passages. When sinuses become inflamed, these areas get blocked and mucus cannot drain. When sinuses are blocked, they provide a place for bacteria, viruses, and fungus to live and grow rapidly. Although a cold is the most common culprit, sinusitis can be caused by anything that prevents the sinuses from draining.
- History of allergies, especially hay fever, or asthma
- Nasal polyps or swellings in the nasal passage, nasal bone spurs, nasal or facial tumor, deviated septum, or cleft palate
- Climbing or flying to high altitudes
- Frequent swimming or diving
Your doctor will ask questions to distinguish sinus headaches from migraines or tension headaches. If you have had a recent cold, allergy flare up, or symptoms of sinusitis, it will help your doctor make a diagnosis.
Your doctor will look in your nose to check for congestion and nasal discharge. Your doctor will also press on areas of your face to check for tenderness. Your doctor may shine a light through the sinuses to look for sinus inflammation; if the light does not shine through, your sinuses may be congested.
If your doctor suspects chronic sinusitis, you may need imaging tests, including an x-ray, computed tomography (CT) scan, or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). If your doctor suspects allergies may be causing your sinusitis, you may need an allergy test. Your doctor may also refer you to a specialist, known as an ear, nose and throat (ENT) doctor, or an otolaryngologist. This specialist may perform a nasal endoscopy using a fiber optic scope to look at your sinuses.
The best way to avoid or get rid of a sinus headache is to treat the underlying sinus inflammation. Sinus pain caused by allergies may be helped by allergy medications and medicated nasal sprays.
Your doctor may prescribe antibiotics or corticosteroids. Lifestyle changes, such as using a humidifier or irrigating your nasal passages with salt water, may also help.
Several dietary supplements and herbs may help prevent colds and flu, shorten their duration, or work together with antibiotics to treat your infection and support your immune system. Flushing the nose and sinuses with saline solution may also help.
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