Sinus Headaches


Sometimes confused with migraine or tension headaches, sinus headaches are characterized by pressure around the cheekbones, eyes, and forehead.

You may even feel like your head is throbbing. Because it’s not always easy to clearly tell what type of headaches you may be experiencing, it’s important to get an accurate diagnosis so you can benefit from the right treatment recommendations.

What Causes Sinus Headaches?

Sinus headaches are so-named because they are the result of a buildup of pressure in air-filled sinus sacs. This pressure is usually due to inflammation or some type of sinus blockage. The resulting pressure tends to be most noticeable where your sinuses are located. Some are found in cheekbones, while others are located behind your nose, around your lower forehead area, and between your eyes. Symptoms often associated with sinus headaches include:

  • Swelling in the face – especially where the sinuses are located
  • Cold-like symptoms – e.g., a runny nose, sniffling
  • A fever
  • A feeling of facial “fullness” that may extend to areas around your ears
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How is a Diagnosis Made?

Because sinus headaches are related to what’s going on within your sinus cavities, a CT scan or MRI scan is usually necessary to positively determine that your headaches are sinus-related. In some cases, a lighted scope with an attached camera may be inserted through your nose to view your sinus cavities.

What Are Your Treatment Options?

If your discomfort is fairly mild, over-the-counter pain relievers may ease symptoms. If a sinus infection is discovered, antibiotics will likely be prescribed to treat it in an attempt to restore the normal airflow through your sinus cavities. Antihistamines or decongestants are sometimes effective for short-term symptom management. This is also true with inhaled nasal decongestants. If inflammation in nasal passages or sinus cavities isn’t going away with the use of over-the-counter medication, steroid medication (corticosteroids) may be recommended. Treatment may also involve allergy management techniques if you have nasal allergies that are affecting your sinuses. You may be able to manage related allergy issues better by:

  • Knowing your allergy triggers
  • Improving your indoor air quality
  • Being mindful of pollen counts if you have issues with outdoor allergy triggers

What About ‘Medication Overuse Headaches’?

The prolonged use of medication to manage sinus headaches sometimes results in “medication overuse headaches.” These tend to develop over time as you become more reliant on medication to ease your discomfort. It’s not fully understood why this happens. However, if it’s suspected that your sinus headaches are returning because you are relying on medication too much, you may be advised to consider surgery to open frequently congested sinus passages. Some patients also have nasal polyps that are contributing to the problem. These non-cancerous growths may also be surgically removed at UCI’s Sinus Surgery Center.

Sinus headaches are sometimes preventable with certain lifestyle adjustments. For instance, regular aerobic exercise can reduce headache occurrences. Even shedding excess pounds, avoiding tobacco products, and minimizing alcohol consumption may be beneficial. It can also help to seek treatment for recurring sinus infections since blocked or irritated sinus cavities can produce the type of pressure that triggers headaches.