What Is a Sinus Headache?

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A sinus headache is a type of headache that causes pain and pressure in the front of the head and face thanks to inflammation in the sinus passages that are located behind your facial structure.

Fortunately, there are treatment options available that can help ease your discomfort. There might also be things you can do to prevent future sinus headaches.


Most noticeably with a sinus headache, you'll feel moderate to severe pain around the sinus area across the front of your face. The sinuses are the hollow spaces behind your forehead, cheekbones, bridge of the nose, and eyes that help produce mucus.

Sinus headache pain may be constant, throbbing, dull, or gnawing and can become more severe throughout the day. This pain may also get worse when you move your head, bend over, or lie down.

In addition to the telltale pain that comes along with a sinus headache, many people also report experiencing:

  • Facial pressure
  • Sinus congestion
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Watery eyes
  • Eye redness or swelling
  • Nose bleeds
  • Fever

These symptoms may be localized to one side or portion of the face, or they may affect both sides of the face equally.

Editor's Note: What many people assume is a sinus headache is actually likely a migraine headache. Sinus headache symptoms like pain, pressure, and congestion can be pretty similar to some migraine symptoms, but there are a couple key differences. Notably, migraine commonly comes with nausea, vomiting, and discomfort to bright lights or loud sounds. If you're experiencing any of those symptoms, check with a healthcare provider for an accurate diagnosis.

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What Causes a Sinus Headache?

A sinus headache develops when the tissue lining the sinus cavities becomes inflamed. This inflammation is known as rhinosinusitis and most commonly happens with a sinus infection. As the tissue inside the sinuses inflame, mucus increases. The trapped air within the sinuses can cause painful pressure, leading to a sinus headache.

Sinus headaches may also be caused by:

  • Other infections, like the common cold or another respiratory illness
  • Allergies
  • Environmental irritants
  • Nasal polyps

How Is a Sinus Headache Diagnosed?

Many sinus headaches are actually incorrectly self-diagnosed—meaning that sometimes, what you think may be a sinus headache may actually be another type of headache or condition, such as migraine

During a medical appointment, the healthcare provider will ask questions about your symptoms and medical history before performing a physical exam. Diagnostic tests can include:

  • Examining your sinuses: They will use a finger to tap on the sinus cavity area for any tenderness or use a small light tool to view the insides of your sinuses through your nose for any swelling.
  • Taking a sample of any mucus: They will test the mucus for bacteria, or sometimes fungi, if a sinus infection is suspected.
  • Ordering imaging: Computed tomography or magnetic resonance imaging can offer a better view inside the sinus cavities to rule out more serious issues such as blockages, tumors, or bleeding around the brain.
  • Referring you for allergy testing: They will want to rule out whether allergies might be the culprit of your sinus headache symptoms like pain and nasal congestion.

The International Headache Society offers specific criteria to diagnose a sinus headache. According to those guidelines, to be diagnosed as a sinus headache, the headache must be caused by either acute or chronic/recurring rhinosinusitis. You would also need to meet some other key criteria, such as increased pain when pressure is applied to the sinus area.

Treatments for a Sinus Headache

Before starting any at-home treatments, it's important to figure out if what you're experiencing is actually a sinus headache and not another form of headache or illness.

Treatment options for easing the discomfort of a sinus infection—and in particular, the intense headache that can come along with it—might include:

  • Prescription antibiotics (for a bacterial sinus infection)
  • Decongestants
  • Antihistamines (for an allergy-related sinus headache)
  • Steam for the nasal passages
  • Avoidance of any allergens
  • Surgery to remove polyps or blockages (in severe cases)

A sinus headache and its corresponding facial pain or pressure should resolve itself within a week after your sinus infection symptoms have started to dwindle or after you've had a successful course of antibiotics. If you find yourself continuing to experience pain after that period of time, consider checking with a healthcare provider again.

How To Prevent a Sinus Headache

Because most sinus headaches are the result of rhinosinusitis, prevention tips will focus on keeping your sinuses healthy—both on a regular basis, and during an infection or respiratory illness.

For example, experts recommend taking steps like:

  • Using a saline nasal spray to clear the nasal passages and reduce swelling
  • Avoiding any allergens or other triggers
  • Trying over-the-counter medications like antihistamines or decongestants, as needed
  • Using a humidifier in your home, particularly in the bedroom
  • Staying hydrated and getting plenty of sleep to help your body fight off infections
  • Applying a warm compress to the sinus area
  • Keeping hands washed to avoid germ transmission, particularly during cold and flu season

A Quick Review

Sinus headaches happen when the sinuses (empty spaces behind your facial bones) become inflamed or congested. The most noticeable symptoms include head pain and pressure. These headaches usually develop as a result of rhinosinusitis, inflammation of the nasal cavity and sinuses that may come from a sinus infection, allergies, or another respiratory infection. Sinus headache and migraine can be confused for one another, which is why an accurate diagnosis from a healthcare provider is important. From there, treatment options may include prescription or over-the-counter medications.

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Health.com uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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