Sinus Headaches

sinus headacheThe sinuses are air-filled pockets below your forehead, cheekbones, and the bridge of your nose. When you are suffering from a cold, allergies, or infection, they can swell, produce excess mucus, and become plugged. This interferes with normal mucus drainage, leading to breathing difficulties, pain, and pressure.

A headache is born.


In some instances, sinus headaches can be confused with migraines, or cluster and tension headaches. It’s also possible for the reverse to be true; meaning what’s assumed to be a headache resulting from sinusitis is really another type of headache.

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True sinus headaches are less common than other headache types and indicate underlying problems. The only way to know for sure is to receive an accurate diagnosis so that appropriate treatments can be recommended.

Generally, a non-invasive physical exam and assessment of your symptoms is sufficient to determine the cause, but sometimes a CT or MRI scan may be ordered.


Sinus headaches are most often caused by infections or allergies. Nasal polyps can also be a culprit. All three can produce pressure buildup when the air-filled sinus sacs become inflamed or blocked. This accumulated pressure can radiate noticeable discomfort in the areas where the sinuses are located – behind the cheekbones and nose, and in the lower forehead.

Symptoms can range from mild to severe, often include:

  • Facial pressure and swelling
  • Cold-like symptoms such as nasal congestion and discharge, post-nasal drip, sore throat
  • A feeling of fullness that may extend to the ears
  • Fever

Patients often find that the pain is worsened by movement of the head—especially when movement is sudden and quick. In cases where a sinus headache is being caused by a nasal polyp, accompanying symptoms may include a decreased sense of smell and/or taste as well as frequent snoring.

Sinus Headache vs. Migraine

Sinusitis and migraine headaches share similar symptoms, which can be confusing when trying to self-diagnose. If in doubt, an ENT physician can offer diagnostic guidance.

  • Pain and pressure around the eyes, across the cheeks, and the forehead
  • Nasal congestion
  • Runny nose
  • Eye redness, tearing, or eyelid swelling
  • Symptoms on one or both sides of the face


To treat a sinus headache effectively for long-term resolution, the cause must first be determined. If an infection is discovered, antibiotics are the usual course of action. For an allergy, patients may be advised to take prescription or over-the-counter allergy medications. Rarely, surgery may be required if the cause of a sinus headache is determined to be a blockage of some kind.

Once the cause of a sinus headache is addressed and treated, the headache should stop. In the meantime, pain can usually be managed with over-the-counter pain relievers and decongestants. Home remedies such as the use of a saline rinse or humidifier may provide some temporary relief. Avoidance of nasal irritants such as smoke, fragrances, and other allergens is also a good idea to minimize sinus pressure and relieve sinus headache pain.