Skip to content

    Migraines & Headaches Health Center

    Font Size

    Migraine or Sinus Headache?

    WebMD Feature
    Reviewed by Richard Senelick, MD

    Headache pain along with a stuffy, runny nose and itchy, watery eyes. Sounds like a sinus headache, right? Think again.

    More than 4 out of 5 people who think they have a sinus headache with symptoms like pain in the head, stuffy nose, and watery eyes actually have migraine headaches.

    "It's such a widespread misconception," says neurology professor Peter Goadsby, MD, who heads the University of California, San Francisco's headache program. "It's the size of the problem that stuns me."

    Here's why it matters: Treating a migraine like a sinus headache, or vice versa, doesn't work.

    Differences in Symptoms, Causes

    Sinus headache and migraine can have some symptoms in common, including:

    Pain in the head, particularly the forehead.

    1. Itchy or watery eyes.
    2. Pain associated with movement.

    But migraines are often also accompanied by other symptoms, including:

    1. Nausea or vomiting.
    2. Sensitivity to sound or light.
    3. Severe throbbing pain on one side of the head.

    Migraine is usually to blame in people who have frequent, severe headaches, says neurology professor Stephen Silberstein, MD, of Thomas Jefferson University. He wrote the American Academy of Neurology's guidelines on migraine diagnosis and treatment.

    "If you walk into your doctor's office with disabling headache pain that comes and goes, 95% of the time it's migraine," Silberstein says. "People with sinus infections don't complain of headache first. They say they are sick and have a headache."

    Sinus headaches are usually caused by an infection and inflammation of the nasal passages. That leads to congestion. And that causes pain and pressure in the forehead and behind the cheekbones.

    Different Treatments

    For sinus headaches, treatment starts with decongestants, pain relievers, and nasal irrigation to ease sinus pressure and congestion and help drainage.

    Antibiotics or nasal steroids are often used as a second line of attack to treat the underlying infection or chronic disease.

    A sinus headache caused by an infection should go away soon after starting treatment.

    Migraine treatment isn't just about stopping a migraine once it starts. It's also about preventing them and reducing their frequency, severity, and duration.

    Drugs called triptans are used during a migraine attack to reduce pain and restore function.

    Today on WebMD

    Business woman with hand on face and eyes closed
    What aura looks like, triggers, and more.
    woman with migraine
    Get the truth about migraines.
    headache in the bedroom
    Keep headaches from ruining your sex life.
    woman with hands on head
    Test your knowledge of triggers, types, and more.
    woman with migraine
    drinking coffee
    Migraines Headaches Basics
    acupuncture needles in woman's back
    Tired young man
    spraying perfume
    man with a headache
    headache in the bedroom