Sinus Headaches: More Than Just A Migraine

By Tiffany Tseng. May 7th 2016

What is it?

Sometimes, you may wake up during the night with a raging headache that just won't go away, and you wonder what is causing this unpleasant experience. Sinus headache, medically known as rhinosinusitis, is one of several types of "headaches" you may experience in your lifetime.

So what makes a sinus headache different from a migraine? Sinus headaches are often results of viral or bacterial infections of the sinus cavity, which are hollow spaces below your nasal and central cheek area. Infection or any type of inflammation of the sinus usually results in mucus production and buildup. When congestion of nasal mucus occurs due to excessive swelling, a sinus headache will occur. According to the American Rhinologic Society, a non-sinus headache will be marked with tension pain in the forehead or discomfort in and around the eyes, with no sinus symptoms.

Signs and Symptoms

The signs and symptoms of a sinus headache are often very similar to migraines or other types of headache, and can be easily misdiagnosed if not done by a professional. Hence, if you are experiencing any of the symptoms below and are not feeling any better, it is best to see your doctor so he or she can properly diagnose your condition and give you the proper treatment for speedy relief.

Signs and symptoms of a sinus headache may include:

  • Facial pain or pressure
  • Nasal or sinus congestion
  • Excessive and/or discolored nasal mucus
  • Fullness or discomfort in the ears
  • Fever
  • Changes in the sensation and ability to smell
  • Foul smelling breath

Commonly, the indications of a sinus headache may also be accompanied by general migraine symptoms, which can include:

  • Nausea
  • Increased sensitivity to light and/or noise
  • Moderate to severe headaches
  • Pain or pressure in and around the eye area
  • Pulsing or throbbing pain
  • Headache worsened by increased activity


A common initial cause for sinus headaches is nasal allergy, which jump starts the mucus production in the sinus cavities. When left untreated, allergic inflammation may worsen, compromise your immune system, and make you more susceptible to viral and bacterial infections. When the nasal mucus is blocked, or "backed up" in your nasal cavities, it becomes an optimal place to harbor organisms that can result in bacterial and viral infections, which ultimately cause sinus headaches.

While allergen causes vary from individual to individual, some sources that may be considered include:

  • Perfumes
  • Cigarette smoke
  • Pollen
  • Animal fur
  • Dust

By keeping your environment free of potential allergens, the risks of sinus headache may be decreased.


Often times, serious sinus allergies may be mistaken as a sinus headache. If the symptoms are mild, over the counter antihistamines and allergy medication may alleviate allergic symptoms and hopefully decongest your nasal passage.

Since sinus headaches are of an infectious nature, taking a course of antibiotic treatment prescribed by your doctor should clear up symptoms and stop all indications of sinus headaches. Sometimes, antihistamines, decongestants, or anti-inflammatory corticosteroids may be prescribed along with the antibiotics to decrease swelling and inflammation. If nasal allergies are the initial cause of sinus headaches, an allergy therapy may be administered to prevent worsening of sinus inflammation.

For individuals who develop chronic sinus headaches, surgery may be an option at the discretion of the physician. The purpose of the surgery is mostly for individuals who do not respond positively to medication or allergy therapy, and the purpose is to clear any obstruction and promote the expelling rate of nasal mucus.

It is common to misdiagnose a common migraine with a sinus headache if a professional opinion is not sought. According to the American Headache Society, a study involving almost 30,000 patients who complained of having a sinus headache showed that 88 percent of the participants actually had migraine headaches after professional evaluation. Sometimes, sinus indications may happen after the presence of a migraine, hence increasing the risk of self-misdiagnoses of the condition.

The American Headache Society also provided a simple way to tell whether your symptoms are of a migraine or sinus headache. Ask yourself:

  • In the last 3 months, has your headache interfered with your ability to perform daily tasks, such as missing work, school or family activities?
  • Does nausea accompany your headaches?
  • Do you have a heightened sensitivity to light during headache episodes?

If you answered "yes" to two to three of the questions above, you are 93 to 98 percent more likely to have a migraine instead of a sinus headache. Either way, be sure to seek a professional healthcare provider's opinion for optimal treatment and relief.


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