What Can I Take for a Sinus Headache?

March 7, 2024

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Sinus headaches, medically known as sinusitis, are an extremely common complaint. Characterized by intense pain, pressure, congestion, and overall discomfort in the facial area, these headaches can severely impact quality of life. Approximately 30 million Americans suffer from sinus headaches annually. Luckily, various over-the-counter and prescription treatment options provide relief.

What Defines a Sinus Headache?

True sinus headaches result from inflammation in the sinuses, the hollow cavities around the eyes, nose and cheeks that produce mucus. Sinusitis refers to infection or swelling in these spaces, rather than the sinuses themselves. While many describe general headaches as “sinus headaches”, legitimate sinusitis differs significantly. Distinguishing characteristics include:


Sinus headaches concentrate pain, pressure and congestion in the forehead, cheeks below the eyes, bridge of nose or around the eyes. Pain rarely, if ever, affects only one side. General headaches frequently cause unilateral or one-sided discomfort instead.

Associated Symptoms

  • Nasal discharge, often yellow or green
  • Sinus inflammation and swelling
  • Sensation of “fullness” in the ears or head”
  • Sore throat and cough
  • Fever (in some cases)
  • Bad breath
  • Fatigue

If headache lacks accompanying upper respiratory congestion, it likely does not qualify as true sinusitis.

Triggers and Timing

Environmental allergies, pollution, weather changes, colds, flu and infections can trigger sinus headaches. Symptoms usually begin immediately or within 24 hours.

General headaches frequently develop more slowly – over several days. They may relate poorly, if at all, with the above triggers.


What Does a Sinus Headache Feel Like?Unpacking Key Signs and Symptoms

Beyond location, sinus headaches produce several distinctive sensations:

Throbbing or Pulsing Pain

Patients often describe a relentless pounding quality, mimicking the heartbeat. Sudden position changes like bending over or straining can worsen throbbing dramatically.

Pressure Around the Eyes, Cheeks or Forehead

Congestion in the sinus cavities exerts outward pressure against facial structures. This creates an unpleasant pushing sensation, frequently compared to the feeling before a sinus infection breaks.

General Facial Pain and Tenderness

Inflamed, swollen sinuses cause generalized aching and soreness throughout the cheeks, nasal area and behind the eyes. Facial pain often concentrates in the upper teeth.

Difficulty Concentrating

Severe facial pain impedes concentration and cognition. Thinking clearly feels mentally exhausting.

While migraine or tension headache can share this trait, cognitive dysfunction seems more pronounced with sinonasal inflammation.

Why Do Sinus Headaches Develop?

Sinus headaches stem from sinus cavities becoming painfully inflamed and congested by:

Sinus Infections

Infections cause the sinuses to swell and fill with fluid. Between 1-5% sinus infections develop into full sinusitis with headache.


Environmental allergies trigger histamine release, inflaming sinus passages. Swelling obstructs sinus drainage, while mounting pressure causes headaches.

Seasonal allergies underlie up to 90% pediatric and 30% adult sinus headaches.

Anatomical Factors

Structural issues like narrow drainage passages, deviated septum and nasal polyps promote poor sinus drainage. Fluid buildup stretches sinus walls, causing extreme pain.

Environmental Pollution and Irritants

Allergens, strong fumes, smoke and particulate matter spark sinonasal inflammation. Swelling constricts openings between sinuses and nasal cavity, producing fluid backup.


Sinus Headache vs. Other Headaches – Critical Distinctions

Sinus headaches share some traits with other common headache types, but differ in key aspects:

Tension Headaches

  • Location: Tension headaches cause bilateral pain, unlike unilateral migraine. However, tension headaches frequently localize to the back of head and neck. Sinus headache pain concentrates around the sinuses.
  • Quality of Pain: Tension headaches create constant, pressing agony. Sinus headaches throb and feel congested.
  • Triggers: Emotional and muscular tension prompts tension headaches. Environmental allergens and irritants instigate sinus headaches.
  • Additional Symptoms: Tension headaches do not cause sinus congestion symptoms like runny nose, whereas these define sinus headache.

Migraine Headaches

  • Location: Migraines commonly localize to one side of head. Sinus headaches cause bilateral facial pain.
  • Quality of Pain: Migraines create severe pulsating agony, exacerbated by light, sound and movement. Sinus headaches share the throbbing quality but lack these migraine triggers.
  • Additional Symptoms: Only sinus headache causes thick nasal discharge, sore throat and bad breath.
  • Triggers: Specific foods, hormones, emotions, sensory stimuli and sleep changes trigger migraines. Sinus headaches follow sinus irritation and inflammation.

Accurately distinguishing headache types directs appropriate, tailored treatment.

Cluster Headaches

  • Location: Cluster headaches always strike one eye socket, unlike bilateral sinus headaches.
  • Timing and Duration: Cluster headaches strike in cyclical patterns, multiple times per day, disappearing for months. Sinusitis causes more constant pain.
  • Quality of Pain: Cluster headache pain feels sharp and burning. Sinus headaches cause sinus pressure and throbbing pain.
  • Triggers: Cluster headaches arise spontaneously or from alcohol use. Sinus headaches follow sinus irritation and obstruction.

Best Sinus Headache Treatment Options

Effective sinus headache remedies target pain relief plus eliminating underlying sinus inflammation and infection.

Over-the-Counter Medications

Common OTC options offer multidimensional treatment:


Oral decongestants like pseudoephedrine (Sudafed) and phenylephrine (Sudafed PE) reduce sinus swelling. Allowing mucus to drain brings rapid, temporary headache relief.

Nasal decongestant sprays offer similar benefits, but limit absorption into the bloodstream. This prevents unintended effects on blood pressure and heart rate from extended use.

Pain Relievers

OTC nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil) or naproxen ease sinus headache pain and discomfort through reducing inflammation. Acetaminophen (Tylenol) also relieves pain by dulling headache signals reaching the brain.

Saline Sprays and Nasal Irrigation

Salt water solutions thin stuck sinus mucus for improved drainage and easier breathing. This can provide substantial headache relief by decreasing sinus swelling and congestion.

Nasal irrigation devices like neti pots or sinus rinses leverage greater saline solution volumes for max symptom relief. Always use distilled, sterilized or previously boiled water to prevent infection.

Combination Medications

Combining decongestants, pain relievers and antihistamines maximizes multidimensional OTC treatment. Speak with your pharmacist to identify optimal combined symptom relief for your needs.

Home Remedies

Non-medical remedies grant further sinus headache relief:

Hot Compresses

Warm compresses, like towels soaked in hot water, alleviate sinus pressure when applied to the nose, cheeks and forehead. The heat thins mucus secretions while relaxing swollen sinus membranes.

Steam Inhalation

Inhaling hot steam liquefies mucus to improve drainage and sinus ventilation. Dry air worsens symptoms – steam restores necessary moisture.

Breathe naturally over a hot cup of herbal tea or bowl of steaming water. Avoid scalding steam temperatures.


Hydrating well thins mucus naturally for greatly improved drainage and airflow. Aim for at least eight 8-ounce glasses of water daily. Herbal teas, broths and 100% fruit juices also contribute valuable fluids without unwanted sugars.


These appliances increase indoor air moisture, combating the drying effect of indoor heating. The resulting air humidity prevents sinus membrane irritation while keeping mucus thinner for drainage. This significantly decreases congestion and associated headaches.

Saline Rinses and Sprays

OTC saline solutions offer inexpensive, effective headache treatment through moistening dry nasal passages and thinning mucus secretions. Rinsing stuck mucus out brings rapid relief.

Lifestyle Adjustments

Certain lifestyle tweaks prevent sinus headache triggers, reducing severity and frequency:

Allergy Management

Allergy treatment prevents histamine release in the nasal area. Antihistamine medications, allergen avoidance and immunotherapy all help minimize sinus inflammation and headache episodes.

Pollution and Irritant Avoidance

Preventing exposures to smoke, strong fumes, allergens and other sinus irritants reduces associated inflammation and swelling. This limits mucus production and sinus obstruction.

Stress Reduction

Chronic stress indirectly exacerbates headaches by depressing immune function and amplifying perceived pain. Relaxation therapies like meditation, yoga and massage help avoid this.

Hydration and Diet

Drink plentiful fluids and eat diets high in vegetables and omega-3s while limiting processed sugars, refined carbs and unhealthy fats. This equips the body to resolve inflammation more easily.

Professional Medical Treatment

With debilitating, chronic or unusually severe sinus headaches, seek medical expertise for specialized testing and treatment.

Imaging Studies

CT scans or MRIs accurately identify sinus infection, obstruction and anatomical factors requiring correction.

Prescription Medications

  • Oral steroids reduce severe nasal swelling and sinus inflammation.
  • Antibiotics, usually amoxicillin, treat underlying sinus infection.
  • Nasal steroid sprays decrease inflammation allowing drainage.
  • Antihistamines block allergy’s effects in sinus regions.
  • Opiates offer temporary, powerful headache pain relief in extreme cases.


Functional endoscopic sinus surgery corrects anatomical misalignments promoting recurring infection and headaches refractory to other treatments.


How to Prevent Sinus Headaches

Preventative measures reduce headache frequency by controlling triggers:

  • Treat allergies and avoid allergy triggers
  • Minimize exposure to smoke, pollution and irritants
  • Manage illness promptly with rest and fluids
  • Prioritize excellent sinus hygiene through saline sprays/rinses
  • Use humidifier during heating months
  • Stay very well hydrated
  • Reduce stress levels with lifestyle changes

Frequently Asked Questions

What should I take for a sinus headache?

Effective OTC options include decongestants to reduce swelling, NSAID pain relievers, antihistamines if allergies are the cause, hot compresses, hydrating well and saline nasal irrigation.

What tea is good for sinus infection?

Herbal teas offer hydration plus active ingredients easing sinus discomfort. Anti-inflammatory ginger, peppery oregano, mentholated peppermint and aromatic rosemary teas help drain sinus fluid and open passages.

What does sinus pressure feel like?

Sinus pressure concentrates around the sinus cavities, feeling like painful inward pushing sensation against the eyes, cheeks and forehead. Pressure mounts as inflamed tissues swell against bony areas.

What causes sinus headaches?

The most common causes are nasal and sinus inflammation from infections, allergies, anatomical obstruction preventing drainage, and irritation from pollutants or environmental factors like dry air or weather changes.

What do you take for a sinus headache?

Treat sinus headaches with OTC oral decongestants, NSAID painkillers, antihistamines if allergies are the cause, hot towels over the face, steam inhalation to drain sinus fluid and open passages, proper hydration and saline nasal irrigation.

Key Takeaways

  • True sinus headaches stem from sinus inflammation and infection, not general headache causes. They produce facial pressure/pain, congestion and thick nasal discharge.
  • Many factors prompt development, especially respiratory infections and nasal allergies. Accurate diagnosis is crucial for treatment.
  • Combination OTC medications, at-home remedies and medical care target headache pain relief and resolving the root sinus inflammation. Prevention reduces frequency.

Understanding sinus headache causes, treatments and prevention empowers effectively managing this common ailment. Consult a medical professional for severe, chronic or atypical symptoms.


  1. https://www.webmd.com/migraines-headaches/sinus-headaches
  2. https://www.cedars-sinai.org/health-library/diseases-and-conditions/s/sinus-headaches.html
  3. https://www.mountsinai.org/health-library/condition/sinus-headache
  4. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/9641-sinus-headaches
  5. https://www.webmd.com/allergies/sinus-headaches
  6. https://www.everydayhealth.com/cold-and-flu-pictures/best-medications-to-treat-a-sinus-infection.aspx
  7. https://www.beckerentandallergy.com/blog/sinus-headache-home-remedies
  8. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/327244
  9. https://www.everydayhealth.com/hs/migraine-headaches-treatment-prevention/prevent-migraines/
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