What Makes Sinus Headaches Different?

Are you having a sinus headache or something else?

Woman with headache
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Sinus headaches take their name from the sinuses, which consist of two sets of cavities, located on either side of the head, that stretch from the center of the forehead and below the eyes toward the temples. Sinus headaches can be the most debilitating headaches because they are accompanied by other symptoms that can alter your ability to do 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 or sneezing.

If you're suffering from a sinus headache, you may also notice nasal discharge that is yellow-green in color or tinged with blood. Each year, nearly 30 million adults -- more than one in eight Americans -- experience sinus headaches. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that sinus headaches account for 12.6 million trips to a doctor's office, and more than one million outpatient hospital visits annually.

Sinuses and Sinus Headache Symptoms

The signs of a sinus headache are continued pain in the head paired with other severe symptoms, such as thick, discolored nasal secretions or post-nasal drip, that annoying sensation of mucus trickling down the back of the throat. Under normal circumstances, these nasal passages produce mucus that drains down the sinuses into the nose, lubricating the nasal canals. But when a sinus headache strikes, it is usually the result of sinusitis, the inflammation of the sinus membranes.

Sinusitis and Causes of Tension Headaches

Sinusitis can develop for a variety of reasons, including exposure to a cold or flu virus, or 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.

Rarely, you may have recurring sinus headaches due to structural abnormalities in your nasal cavity, which can be repaired surgically. However, sinusitis usually occurs when the mucus in clogged sinuses becomes infected with bacteria, causing pressure changes that trigger pain.

Links Between Sinus Headache and Migraine

Sinus headaches fall under the category of inflammatory headaches. This classification sets them apart from the other two broad classes of headaches, neurovascular and tension-type. Diagnosis depends on what triggers the onset of the headache and the location and nature of the headache pain. For example,  migraines usually last less than 72 hours, while acute sinus inflammation can last five days or longer. Migraines can feel similar to sinus headaches, with pain behind the eyes that worsens if the individual bends forward. But individuals 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 differentiate between a sinus headache and a migraine. Researchers have found that approximately three-quarters of patients reporting sinus headaches also met the International Headache Society criteria for migraine. However, these patients often had sinus disease, and reported sinus pressure, pain and congestion.

Heading Off Sinus Headache Pain

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. But symptomatic treatment is likely not enough, as it does not address the underlying sinus problem causing the pain. Recovering from a sinus headache may involve a number of remedies, including use of room humidifiers, or OTC saline sprays, antihistamines or decongestants.

Sinus Headache Diagnosis

If you experience sinus headache symptoms, you should contact their physician if:

  • Pain is not relieved with OTC remedies
  • Symptoms last longer than 10 days
  • Fever is higher than 100.5 degrees

When consulting your physician, the doctor may ask about symptoms you are experiencing, and will likely perform a physical exam. The doctor may 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. The most effective treatment for bacterial sinus infections is antibiotics, which need to be taken for the full duration of treatment to ensure that all the bacteria are eradicated. Eliminating the bacterial infection should also put an end to the sinus headaches.


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