Why a Cold Makes Your Sinuses Throb

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on February 22, 2023
3 min read

You've got a bad cold, the kind that makes you feel like your head is stuffed with cotton and your nose is a drippy, leaky faucet. On top of the congestion, your sinuses feel like they’re under pressure.

Blame the cold virus. It has attacked the membranes of your nasal passages and your sinuses, which makes them swell up and sends mucus production into overdrive. That clogs up your sinuses, which causes sinus pain and pressure.

An antibiotic won’t help. They only fight bacteria, not the viruses that cause colds.

Until your cold goes away, you can try one of these remedies to ease the sinus pain and pressure.

Over-the-counter medications. Decongestants shrink swollen blood vessels in the nasal passages. This should ease sinus congestion, lessen the pressure, and help with drainage. You can get these meds as pills, liquids, and nasal sprays.

Some medicines combine a decongestant with an antihistamine, which can help your runny nose, or a pain reliever that can ease sinus pain.

Don’t use nasal decongestant sprays for more than 3 days in a row, because that can make your congestion worse after you stop.

Decongestants can raise blood pressure. So if your blood pressure is already high, check with your doctor first. Also make that call if you have diabetes, an enlarged prostate, thyroid disease, or heart disease. While you take this type of medication, watch for side effects like nervousness, urinary retention, dizziness, and sleeplessness.

Over-the-counter pain relievers -- such as acetaminophen, ibuprofen, and naproxen -- can ease the pain caused by sinus pressure. Read and follow the directions on the label on all your medicines, since they may be included in any combination cold or allergy drug. You don't want to accidentally take too much.

Moisten the air. To breathe easier, turn on a humidifier while you sleep, or stand in a steamy shower for a few minutes. The steam will loosen tight mucus. You can hold a warm, wet washcloth to your nose or breathe in steam from a bowl of warm water to get a similar effect. Make sure it’s not too hot, so you don’t burn yourself.

Bioelectronic sinus device. This works by using microcurrents to stimulate nerve fibers in your sinuses. Sold over-the-counter, it helps reduce sinus inflammation, pain, and congestion. 

Saltwater (saline) sprays. Spraying a saline solution into your nose or pouring it into each nostril with a Neti pot can help clear out the mucus and other gunk that clogs you up. The salt water loosens up thick mucus, and it also flushes out some of the germs that made you sick in the first place.

When you irrigate, flush, or rinse your sinuses, use distilled, sterile, or previously boiled water to make up the solution. Rinse the irrigation device after each use and leave it open to air dry.

Sip some more. The liquid loosens the mucus that's backed up in your sinuses. Hot tea is good. So is chicken soup.

Add a pillow. You need to rest when you're sick. Prop up your pillow to raise your head so you breathe better.

Call your doctor if your symptoms stick around for more than a week to 10 days, or if they get worse after about 5 days.