Sinus Headache vs. Migraine: Which One Do You Have?

It's probably a migraine, studies show.

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If you're suffering from what you believe are frequent sinus headaches, you most likely actually are having migraine headaches.

Yes, that's right: your "sinus headaches" are almost certainly migraines. Studies show some 90% of self-diagnosed sinus headaches actually are migraines.

It's easy to mistake a migraine for a sinus headache, especially when your headache symptoms include nasal congestion and watering eyes — these symptoms seem to scream "sinus." But you may not realize that migraine sufferers also can experience nasal pressure and eye watering with a migraine attack.

Here's some more information on sinus headaches vs. migraines, and how you may be able to tell the difference.

Sinus Headache Symptoms vs. Migraine Symptoms

There's considerable overlap between the symptoms of sinus headache and the symptoms of migraine headache.

Both types of headache will feature pain that may seem to be centered on your sinuses -- around your eyebrows, forehead and surrounding your nose. In addition, in both cases the pain most likely will feel worse when you lean forward.

As I said above, you can have a stuffy nose and watering eyes in a migraine as well as in a sinus headache, so that won't help you tell the difference.

Here's where the two types of headaches diverge: When you have a sinus headache, you'll likely have additional symptoms of sinusitis, which is an infection of your sinuses. These signs can include a more mucus-like nasal discharge (which may be yellow or greenish in color), coughing, bad breath and even fever.

You're not likely to have these with a migraine.

When you have a migraine, meanwhile, you may have nausea or vomiting, and you may find yourself sensitive to bright lights and strong odors. These features are not common in sinus headaches associated with sinusitis.

Getting the Correct Diagnosis

Since the vast majority of people who believe they have sinus headaches actually have migraines, it's important for you to get the correct diagnosis, especially if you're suffering from headaches several days a month or more, and if your headaches are disrupting your life.

When you see your doctor, she will want to know how often you're having headaches, and will ask you to describe your symptoms. You'll also most likely discuss possible triggers for your headaches, which can include certain foods, stress and in women, your period.

If your doctor diagnoses you with migraine disorder, there are several medications that can help, including both over-the-counter and prescription options. If, on the other hand, your headaches result from chronic sinusitis, you may be prescribed nasal sprays, pain relievers or decongestants to relieve the pressure in your sinuses.

Sources:

American Headache Society. "Sinus Headache" or Migraine fact sheet. Accessed Nov. 29, 2015.

Patel ZM et al. Evaluation and management of "sinus headache" in the otolaryngology practice. Otolaryngologic Clinics of North America. 2014 Apr;47(2):269-87.

Patel ZM et al. "Sinus headache": rhinogenic headache or migraine? An evidence-based guide to diagnosis and treatment. International Forum of Allergy & Rhinology. 2013 Mar;3(3):221-30.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office on Women's Health. Migraine fact sheet. Accessed Nov. 30, 2015.

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