Sinus headaches are an uncommon type of headache caused by infected sinuses. They are felt as a dull, throbbing pain in the upper face.
Many people assume they have a sinus headache when in fact it’s much more likely to be either a migraine or tension-type headache.
It’s important to see your GP if you have any type of bad headache that you cannot control with over-the-counter medicine, so you can get a proper diagnosis and treatment.
This page explains:
what the sinuses are, and how they can cause sinusitis and a sinus headache
how a sinus headache is treated
The sinuses are small air spaces in the skull, found behind the nose, eyes and cheeks. They open out into the nose, allowing mucus to drain and air to circulate normally.
When the lining of the nose and upper airways becomes infected and swollen, for example with a cold, the small opening from the sinuses to the nose can become blocked. This prevents mucus from draining and causes pressure to build up inside the sinuses.
You can feel stuffy and congested for a while, but this normally gets better once the cold goes away.
However, bacteria like to grow in the trapped mucus, so sometimes another infection can develop inside the sinuses, known as sinusitis.
For some people with sinusitis, the pressure inside the sinuses builds up to such an extent that it causes pain, or a sinus headache.
Signs and symptoms of a sinus headache
A sinus headache is a constant, throbbing pain felt in the face (often under the eyes or in the upper teeth). It tends to be at its worst first thing in the morning and may get better by the afternoon.
The pain gets worse when you move your head, strain or bend down, and when you experience extreme changes in temperature (such as going from a warm room into freezing air outside).
Your face will also feel tender to the touch, and you may have some of the general symptoms of sinusitis, such as a runny nose.
The symptoms of a sinus headache are very similar to those of a migraine and tension-type headache, so it can sometimes be hard to tell which you have.
For example, migraines can also feel worse when you make sudden movements. However, a migraine tends to worsen with noise or bright light and you may also feel sick, which doesn’t happen with a sinus headache.
Treating a sinus headache
If you think you have a sinus headache, see your GP. Once they’ve determined that it’s definitely a sinus headache (and not a tension-type headache or migraine), they’ll prescribe some medication to treat your underlying infection.
You may be prescribed any of the following medicines to help relieve congestion, swelling and runny nose:
decongestant tablets or nasal spray
corticosteroid nasal spray
At home, you can try a few things to help relieve your sinus headache, described below:
Nasal douching with a saline nasal spray (available from your pharmacist). Nasal douching may help reduce swelling in the sinuses by flushing out mucus, bacteria and any allergy-causing particles.
Hold a cold flannel to your affected sinuses for a few minutes, and repeat a few times throughout the day.
Breathe moist air by using a humidifier.