What is a sinus headache?
A sinus headache can occur when the sinuses are inflamed, for example when you have a cold or allergies.1 When this happens, you might feel pain around your sinus area, but you may also feel like there is pressure around your whole head region. Pressure or fullness can also be felt around your eyes, cheeks, and forehead. This is known as sinusitis and is a key feature when experiencing a sinus headache.1,3
Migraine headaches are different to sinus headaches. Migraine headaches cause a throbbing pain which is usually more severe on one side of the head than the other. They are typically associated with sensitivity to light and/or sound. If you have a throbbing headache and see bright shimmering lights, you’re more likely to be experiencing a migraine headache than a sinus headache. Migraine headaches can also make you feel nauseous and vomit.2
What causes sinus pressure and sinus headache?
The sinus cavities are air-filled cavities around your nose, eyes, and cheeks, that are connected to the nose and throat.1 They warm and moisten the air before it reaches the lungs and help to prevent infection by trapping inhaled dirt and pollutants in mucous.1
Sinus pain happens when the blood vessels lining your nose and sinus cavities become inflamed.1 When there’s too much mucous and the lining of the channels swell, the narrow channels connecting the sinuses become blocked causing sinusitis. Bacteria can then grow inside the mucous, causing pain, headaches and sometimes fever.1
Inflammation of the sinuses typically occurs when your immune system is triggered during a cold or allergy, or if the lining of the sinuses become irritated. Nasal polyps (swellings in the linings of the nose or sinuses), can also contribute to mucous build-up and sinusitis symptoms. Structural abnormalities of the nose, like a deviated septum, can also increase your risk of sinusitis.1,3
What are the symptoms of a sinus headache?
A sinus headache usually occurs when there is pain and/or pressure around the face and in the sinus area. It can also cause aching teeth in the upper jaw or pain in the cheek.1,3 This pain can intensify when you lean forward.1 Sinusitis can also cause a feeling of fullness in the ears, fatigue, and facial swelling.1,2
Since a sinus headache is a feature of sinusitis, it may be accompanied by other features of a sinus infection, such as a persistent cough and generally feeling unwell. You may have a runny nose and notice that the mucous coming from your nose is yellow or green-coloured mucous.1 Some people also lose their sense of smell and taste.1 If you think you have a sinus infection, speak to your doctor.
Sinus headache relief
Sinusitis usually lasts for about a week, but can stick around for months at a time.1 You can help manage your symptoms by:1
- Steam inhalation – try adding a few drops of eucalyptus oil to the solution
- Warm compresses held against your face
- Pain relief medication
Medications which contain ibuprofen (an analgesic with anti-inflammatory properties4) like Nurofen, and phenylephrine (a decongestant5) may help relieve sinus or nasal congestion, headache, aches and pains.6 Antibiotics may be prescribed by your doctor if you have a bacterial infection.1,3
If you are ever in any doubt, please speak to your doctor or pharmacist for further advice.
What does a sinus headache feel like?
A sinus headache typically feels like pressure and/or pain around the face and sinus area. You may feel like your face is swollen or full, and this feeling can spread to your ears. As sinus headaches are commonly associated with sinus infections, you may feel generally unwell and more tired than usual.1 The feeling of pain and pressure in your face can also worsen as you lean forward.1
Diagnosing a sinus headache
Symptoms of sinus headaches can sometimes be confused with other conditions, so it’s important to see your doctor for a definitive diagnosis. For example, you may confuse a sinus headache with other types of headaches, such as migraine headaches or cluster headaches.3
To help to determine the cause of your headache pain, your doctor will assess your symptoms and may examine your nose for blockages. They may refer you to have a computerised tomography (CT) scan to help determine the diagnosis, or request you have an allergy assessment if they feel your symptoms are related to an allergy.3
Recurring sinus headaches
If you find you are frequently experiencing sinus headaches, it’s important to find the underlying problem and treat it appropriately. Your doctor may refer you for further assessments to find potential triggers, such as allergies, or suggest you avoid certain irritants like swimming pools that may worsen symptoms. Sometimes underlying dental disease can cause sinus headaches, so this needs to be treated. If your symptoms don’t resolve with treatment, you may be referred to an Ear, Nose and Throat (ENT) specialist to explore your management options.
Some medicines may not be right for you so always read the label before purchase and follow the directions for use. If you use medicines incorrectly, they can harm you. If your symptoms persist, talk to your health professional.
This article is for general information only and not intended as a substitute for medical advice. All information presented on these web pages is not meant to diagnose or prescribe. In all health-related matters, always consult your health professional.
Always read the label and follow the directions for use. Incorrect use could be harmful.
- Better Health Channel. Sinusitis. Available at: https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/ConditionsAndTreatments/sinusitis?viewAsPdf=true (accessed June 2020).
- Health Direct. Headaches. Available at: https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/headaches (accessed November 2022).
- Brown C, Aus Fam Phys 2008;37(4):306–310.
- Australian Medicines Handbook2020 (online). Ibuprofen. Adelaide: Australian Medicines Handbook Pty Ltd; 2020 January. Available from: https://amhonline.amh.net.au/. Accessed May 9, 2020
- Australian Medicines Handbook2020 (online). Phenylephrine. Adelaide: Australian Medicines Handbook Pty Ltd; 2020 January. Available from: https://amhonline.amh.net.au/. Accessed April 8, 2020.
- Allan GM & Arroll B. CMAJ 2014;186(3):190-9.