What Is an Allergy Headache?

Doctors differ on if there is such a thing.

Headaches are one of the most common types of pain—according to the US National Library of Medicine. They're so common, they're a major reason many people miss school or work. But while some headaches—like cluster headaches and tension headaches—can occur on their own without a specific reason, other headaches can be related to outside circumstances, like allergies.

The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (AAAAI) indicates that allergy symptoms can be triggered in various places, including the sinuses. Sinuses are spaces around your eyes and nose that can become blocked, inflamed, or swollen per the AAAAI. As a result, a person may end up experiencing rhinosinusitis—and one of the symptoms is a headache.

Specifically, the AAAAI notes that healthcare professionals use the following criteria to confirm a rhinosinusitis headache diagnosis:

  • Headaches that are located at the front of your head in facial, ear, or tooth areas along with evidence of rhinosinusitis
  • Headaches coinciding with rhinosinusitis symptoms
  • Headaches or facial pain that goes away following reduced symptoms or treatment of rhinosinusitis within a week
Portrait Of An Elderly Man A Headache While Standing In Garden

Kanchanalak Chanthaphun / EyeEm/Getty Images

Debate Over Allergy Headaches

According to the ACAAI, two different types of headaches are linked to allergies. The first are sinus headaches, which typically feel like facial pain and pressure. The second type is migraine, which can cause moderate to severe pain that can feel throbbing and can be accompanied by nausea and other symptoms. The triggers of those headaches often include nasal or sinus congestion, stress, certain foods, or smoke.

Still, before you definitively start blaming your headaches on allergy season, it's important to note that allergy headaches in general are controversial in the medical community. "A true allergy headache is probably very rare," Ronald Purcell, MD, an allergist at Cleveland Clinic told Health. Additionally, the AAAAI says that rhinosinusitis can lead to headaches, but "it is controversial whether constant blockage of the nasal passages caused by allergic inflammation can lead to chronic headaches."

That's because some experts believe that what people call allergy headaches may actually be a different type of headache—like a migraine or tension headache—independent of a person's allergies. In fact, research has indicated that 88-90% of sinus headaches for patients have been migraines instead per a May 2019 article published in Neuroimaging Clinics.

The National Headache Foundation (NHF) also highlights the controversial connection between allergies and headaches, sharing that, while many people with migraines may attribute them to reactions to certain foods, that's often not the case (they note the difference between headache-triggering chemicals, which are bodily reactions but not allergic reactions). The NHF adds that respiratory issues or seasonal allergies can contribute to or cause sinus headaches (and in some cases, migraines), and patients who experience those issues should be evaluated by a medical professional for a proper diagnosis.

Regardless of the controversy—and whether you have an allergy headache or instead a headache triggered by allergies—the pain is real. "Most commonly, what people will describe is a sense of pressure in the face," says Dr. Purcell. That pain is typically caused by inflammation in the sinuses, or the hollow air spaces behind the eyes, cheekbones, forehead, and nose (though Dr. Purcell notes that sinus pain may also be due to a sinus infection rather than allergies).

Treating Headaches

Not everyone who has allergies will experience headaches, but if you end up being one of the individuals who does experience them, there are ways to get relief. The treatment for a headache possibly caused by allergies is pretty simple: You treat the allergies to make the headache or facial pain go away.

Allergies can be treated with over-the-counter or prescription medications, as well as allergy shots. If allergies are coexistent with headaches, taking a steamy shower, OTC medications, or other home remedies may be relieving as well. But other than treating your allergies and the headaches, there's no specific treatment for allergy headaches.

The ACAAI also recommends avoiding headaches or allergy triggers as much as possible. That means limiting outdoor exposure when pollen counts are high, avoiding fans that can draw air from outside into your home, wearing sunglasses that limit allergen exposure to your eyes, washing your hands after petting any animals you're allergic to, and keeping the humidity in your home at low levels to limit exposure to mold, among other things.

It's crucial to determine the appropriate diagnosis concerning the headache, especially if you feel that your headaches are coming from your sinuses, the AAAAI says.

And if you keep getting headaches even after you've gotten your allergies under control, your head pain may be due to something else, says Dr. Purcell. Remember: There are loads of different types of headaches, so if the pain persists, don't hesitate to see a headache specialist to get some relief and make sure further testing doesn't need to be done.

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