Sinus headaches affect the area around the nose. They usually follow an infection and cause pain across the bridge of the nose and the cheeks. They can also be the result of allergies.

Sinuses are spaces in the bones of the face. There are four pairs across the cheeks, bridge of the nose, and above the eyes. Scientists are not entirely sure what role the sinuses play in the body. It is possible that they make the skull lighter, prevent heat from escaping the head, or help make the voice louder.

Treatment for a sinus headache depends on the underlying cause. A mild sinus headache can often be treated at home.

Fast facts on sinus headache:

  • The primary symptom of a sinus headache is a pain in the sinuses.
  • Treatment for a sinus headache will usually target the underlying cause.
  • Sinus headaches are usually caused by an infection or an allergy.

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An infection or allergy may cause a sinus headache.

The sinuses are lined with a membrane similar to the lining of the nose. If a person has an infection or allergy, this membrane can swell up and cause a sinus headache.

A person may feel this pain in their cheeks, the bridge of their nose, and in the area above the nose.

Sometimes, these areas might look swollen. A sinus headache might affect one or both sides of the face.

Sinus headaches are usually caused by an infection, such as sinusitis. A person who develops sinusitis is likely to have other symptoms, including:

  • fever
  • a blocked nose
  • a lessened sense of smell
  • green or yellow mucus when a person blows their nose

Some people find that the pain feels worse after coughing, leaning over, or bending down.

If a sinus headache is not causing too much pain, a person may be able to manage it at home. A person should rest, drink plenty of fluids, and take painkillers.

However, anyone experiencing severe pain from a sinus headache should see a doctor. A person may also need to seek medical advice if:

  • the pain worsens
  • symptoms do not get better after a week
  • painkillers do not help

For a sinus headache caused by sinusitis, a doctor may prescribe decongestants or antibiotics.

A sinus headache caused by an allergy will usually be treated with a nasal spray that contains antihistamines or steroids.

If a person repeatedly gets a sinus headache or has sinusitis for 3 months, a doctor may refer them to an ear, nose, and throat specialist.

The specialist will likely ask about symptoms, take a medical history, and examine the person's head, nose, and face. They may also take images of the head with an X-ray or MRI scan.

Some people may require surgery to widen the sinuses. The procedure might involve removing a small amount of tissue from the sinuses or inflating a tiny balloon device within the sinuses to widen the sinus passages.

Home remedies

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The sinuses may be opened up by breathing in steam.

A person who has a sinus headache caused by sinusitis might be able to treat it with home remedies. These treatments may not work if the pain is very severe, or symptoms last for over a week, however.

Breathing in steam

Breathing in steam can help to open up the nasal passages and sinuses, which may help to relieve pressure and pain:

  • boil some water and allow it to cool slightly
  • pour the water into a large heatproof bowl
  • lean the face over the bowl
  • cover the head with a small towel
  • breathe slowly in and out through the nose

Cleaning the nose with a salt water solution

Using a salt water solution can help to decongest the nose:

  • boil roughly 1 pint of water and allow to cool
  • dissolve 1 teaspoon (tsp) of salt and 1 tsp of baking soda in the water
  • wash hands with soap and water
  • pour a small amount of the solution into a cupped palm
  • sniff the water into the nostril, one at a time
  • repeat until the nose feels clearer

A warm washcloth

Holding a warm washcloth to the face can ease pain and pressure:

  • run a clean washcloth under hot water and wring out
  • apply across the bridge of the nose and cheeks
  • hold the washcloth in place for a few minutes
  • repeat several times per day

Research by the American Migraine Foundation found that a migraine is often mistaken for a sinus headache.

A sinus headache and a migraine have some symptoms in common, including:

  • feeling pressure in the face and forehead
  • pain that worsens when moving the head
  • a blocked nose

There are different treatments for a migraine and sinus headaches, so it is important to get the correct diagnosis.

If a person has symptoms of sinusitis followed by pain and pressure in the face, this is probably a sinus headache. If a headache lasts for more than a week or is not cured by antibiotics, it may be a migraine.

A person who has a migraine is likely to experience other symptoms that do not appear with a sinus headache.

These include:

  • being sensitive to light
  • nausea
  • a pulsing or a throbbing headache

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People with hay fever may feel pain in the same area as a sinus headache.

Allergies, particularly hay fever, can cause headaches.

A person experiencing a headache caused by an allergy will probably experience pain in the same area of the face as a sinus headache.

This is because allergies can cause a blocked or inflamed nose.

A person who has a headache caused by an allergy may experience other symptoms, such as:

A doctor or allergist should be able to find the cause of the allergy and suggest ways to manage and treat it.

A person who experiences headaches regularly may have a medication headache. This can happen when someone takes too many painkillers or uses pain relief medication for an extended period.

Sinusitis is a primary cause of a sinus headache. Some forms of the condition can be severe if left untreated. This is because the sinuses are close to the brain and any infection could pass to the central nervous system.

If a sinus headache does not improve within a week, a person should seek medical advice. Sinus headaches are usually not serious and can often be treated at home.

It is common for a person to mistake a migraine for a sinus headache. The two conditions require different treatment, so a person should consult a doctor if they have questions about their symptoms.