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Treating Sinus Headaches

When your sinuses become clogged, sinus headaches -- a feeling of deep pain and pressure above your nose and between your eyes -- can follow. Sinus headaches can range from annoying to severe, and they can sometimes be hard to treat.

But that’s not only because the underlying sinus problem can be hard to resolve. Sometimes, the problem is that people who think they have sinus headaches don’t really have them. Instead, they, or their doctors, mistake tension or migraine headaches for sinus headaches.

How do you know if your “sinus headache” is really a sinus headache? And if it is, what should you do about it? Here are answers to some key questions about sinus headache treatments.

Sinus Headache? Getting the Right Diagnosis

First, you need to figure out the real cause of your headache pain. One study found that of 100 people who believed they had sinus headaches, almost 90% actually seemed to have migraine headaches. 

Why the confusion? First, the symptoms of different headache types have a lot of overlap. Second, headaches are common to many ailments, such as the common cold. When a person happens to experience both at the same time, he or she might naturally assume that they’re connected when it could just be a coincidence.

Given the confusion, it’s crucial to get the right diagnosis. Why? The right treatment for a sinus headache may have nothing to do with another illness -- and vice versa. Without the correct diagnosis, you won’t necessarily be able to relieve your pain.

Sinus Headache Symptoms

Typically, sinus headaches cause:

  • Pain and pressure around the sinuses – in the forehead, especially behind and between the eyes, and above the nose. These areas may be tender to the touch.
  • Pain that worsens with movement, like bending over or lying down.

However, if headache pain is your only symptom, you probably don’t have a sinus headache. A sinus headache is usually accompanied by other symptoms of sinus problems as well, including:

  • Nasal stuffiness
  • Nasal discharge
  • Cough and sore throat
  • Fatigue

Sinus Headache Treatments

Sinus headache treatment is usually two-pronged: you treat the headache pain itself while also treating the underlying cause.

To relieve the pain and pressure of sinus headaches, here are some things you can try.

  • Use an over-the-counter pain reliever. It’s an obvious solution and you’ve probably already tried it. But medications like acetaminophen (Tylenol), ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), or naproxen sodium (Aleve), may help reduce your pain. Always read and follow the label and don’t use them for more than 10 days at a time without talking to your doctor.
  • Try a decongestant. These over-the-counter medicines help open the blocked sinus cavities by reducing the swelling in your nasal passages and reducing the amount of mucus. But follow the instructions. Don’t use nasal decongestant sprays for more than three consecutive days, and don’t use oral decongestants for more than seven. . If you are already taking a pain medicine with acetaminophen or ibuprofen, be sure that the decongestant does not contain this as well.
  • Try other medicines. Antihistamine allergy medicines may help if your sinus problems are related to allergies. In some cases, your doctor may prescribe nasal steroid sprays and other drugs to help reduce your congestion and sinus headache pain. 
  • Keep your nasal passages moist. Dry air will further irritate your sinuses. So use a humidifier or vaporizer. Other options include a warm wet towel over your face for a few minutes or using a saline solution nasal spray. 
  • Use nasal irrigation (or lavage). Get a bulb syringe or Neti pot and flush out your sinuses with salt water. It moistens and helps clear mucus from the nasal passages, helping to reduce the pressure. If you’ve never tried the approach before, get some pointers from your doctor. It's important to note that, according to the CDC, if you are irrigating, flushing, or rinsing your sinuses, use distilled, sterile, or previously boiled and cooled water to make up the irrigation solution. It’s also important to rinse the irrigation device after each use and leave open to air dry.
  • Avoid irritants. Perfume, cigarette smoke, and certain chemicals can worsen your sinus symptoms by irritating the nasal passageways.

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