Once your sinus issues hit, congestion can pile up in the passages behind your nose, ears, eyes, cheeks and forehead, and you might even experience a headache. 

And while there are remedies and medication that can help with sinus headache relief and make the pain ebb away, you should first make sure that the pain you’re feeling is a sinus headache. 

If you’re asking “what else could it be?”, hold off on taking that painkiller and read on first. Arm yourself with the information on how to accurately diagnose your headaches and get the treatment that you need. 

Commonly misunderstood headaches: sinus headaches, migraines and tension headaches

About 88% of patients who go to doctors with sinus headaches are actually suffering from migraines. 

With your sinuses causing considerable congestion in your face, it’s understandable why you’d think that you’re experiencing a sinus headache or even a “sinus migraine”. 

Well, there are no sinus migraines. There are only migraines, sinus headaches and tension headaches, and all of them are different. 

The term “sinus migraine” was coined colloquially only because some migraines show signs of sinus conditions. In actuality, there are over 150 types of migraines and headaches, and your headache may not necessarily fit the generic descriptions. Well, here’s how to tell what’s what. 

Infographic on the differences between a sinus headache, migraine and a tension headache
These three types of headaches are commonly misdiagnosed.

Understanding your sinuses

More often than not, sinus headaches are misdiagnosed since that they’re quite uncommon. Sinus headaches are typically triggered by sinusitis, which is an inflammation of the sinuses usually caused by bacterial infections. 

What do sinuses do

Sinuses help to lighten the skull or improve our voices, but their main purpose is to produce  mucus that moisturises the inside of the nose. The mucus layer produced by the sinuses protects the nose from pollutants, micro-organisms, dust and dirt. The mucus layer will then be pushed towards the back of your throat by tiny hair cells that line your airways. 

Where are the sinuses? 

We all have four pairs of sinuses, each pair reflecting with the same function on both the left and right sides. 

Located right above your eyes and near your forehead are your frontal sinuses. Sitting directly behind your eyes and deeper into your skull are your sphenoid sinuses. Your ethmoid sinuses are located on each side of the bridge of your nose, while the maxillary sinuses are located on each side of your nose, near the cheek bones. 

With our faces being a map for many glands and functions, sinuses occupy a large proportion. That’s precisely why it’s so uncomfortable when sinuses get inflamed. 

What are sinus headaches?

Sinus headaches and migraines are easy to confuse because their signs and symptoms may overlap.

Sinus infections tend to display certain telltale signs,  usually occurring after a viral upper respiratory infection or cold and starting with thick discoloured mucus and sometimes even a fever. Lying down may worsen sinus headaches. This is because there is increased blood flow in the blood vessels of your sinuses due to blood pressure changes when lying down, which causes sinus congestion, pressure and pain. In addition, gravity is no longer helping your sinuses drain and mucus may pool in the back of your throat, irritating the tissue and causing a worse sinus infection

If you’ve got a chronic sinus infection, you may find this to be a recurring problem that causes discomfort over several months. But if you’re lucky, you may not experience any symptoms or have a headache. 

Healthcare professional massaging a woman’s face for sinus headache relief
Facial massage helps promote drainage and decrease pressure in your sinuses.

Common symptoms of a sinus headache include:

  • Pain, pressure and fullness in your cheeks, brow or forehead
  • Pain getting worse when you lean forward or lie down
  • Fever
  • Achy feeling in your upper teeth
  • Fatigue
  • Watery eyes
  • Discoloured nasal discharge (yellowish/greenish mucus or pus)
  • Nasal congestion or stuffy nose
  • Foul-smelling breath

What are migraines?

Decoding migraines is simple. Think of sinus-type symptoms like congestion and watery eyes, and then add a severe headache to the combination. 

At this stage, a migraine sounds very similar to a sinus headache. But to classify your headache as a migraine, you also have to look out for the symptoms of sensitivity to light or sound, nausea and vomiting, a lack of appetite and pain that resolves between four to 36 hours. You’ll also not have a fever. 

If you’re having a migraine, you may notice that lying in a dark, silent room may ease your pain, especially when combined with over-the-counter painkillers. 

It’s important to note that until you’ve gotten professionally diagnosed, it’s unsafe to assume that you’ve got a sinus headache or a migraine just because a sinus headache remedy or painkiller relieves your headaches. 

You should go see a doctor when:

  • Your headache symptoms occur more than 2 weeks a month or require frequent over-the-counter painkillers
  • You have a severe headache and over-the-counter painkillers does not relieve 
  • Your headache symptoms interfere with your daily life

Common symptoms of migraine include:

  • Pain usually on one side of your head, but often on both sides
  • Throbbing or pulsating pain
  • Sensitivity to light or sound, and sometimes smell and touch
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Pressure in forehead and cheeks
  • Fatigue
  • Visual disturbances like flashing lights
  • Nasal congestion
  • Clear and watery nasal discharge
  • Watery eyes

What are tension headaches?

Tension headaches are also sometimes commonly mistaken for sinus headaches.

Tension headaches are the most commonly experienced type of headache. As the stresses of life and habitually-caused strain to your body pile up, tension headaches may make episodic appearances, occurring once to twice a month on average. 

They can also be chronic, with some people having episodes that last for over 15 days a month for at least 3 months. Women are twice as likely as men to have tension headaches.

Unlike migraines, tension headaches are rarely severe and are not throbbing. They are not made worse by routine physical activity and not associated with light and sound sensitivity and nausea and vomiting. Some patients have complained of tension headaches feeling like a tight band wrapped around their forehead. 

In general, tension headaches are triggered by stressors, activities and foods. Food factors such as alcohol and caffeine consumption, and skipping meals can all cause tension headaches. 

Tension headaches can also be triggered by factors from work and life such as poor posture, decreased water intake and staring at a computer screen for a long time. It’s safe to say that a lot of things trigger tension headaches, but mostly, they have the resounding causes of unhealthy habits, stressors and external conditions. 

Common symptoms of a tension headache include

  • Dull, aching pain over both sides of the head
  • Sensation of tightness or pressure across your forehead or on the sides and back of your head
  • Tenderness on your scalp, neck and shoulder muscles

If you’re having tension headaches, it’s important not to overlook them. Not all tension headaches can be solved with lifestyle changes and proper stress management. In some instances, a healthcare professional may want to run some tests to rule out life-threatening problems like a brain tumour. 

Sinus headaches, migraines and tension headaches: how to tell them apart? 

The simplest way to tell a sinus headache, a migraine attack and a tension headache apart is to identify the most independent differences between the symptoms of all three. 

This table will help you pick the differences out with ease, as only unique symptoms have been highlighted. Unique symptoms are symptoms that are specific to one of the three conditions and aren’t shared as common symptoms. 

Type of headacheSinus headacheMigraineTension
Unique symptoms – Pain, pressure and fullness in cheeks, brow or forehead
– Pain getting worse when leaning forward or lying down
– Achy feeling in upper teeth
– Discoloured nasal discharge (yellowish / greenish mucus or pus)
– Foul-smelling breath
– Disabling and debilitating pain that is throbbing or pulsating
– Nausea and vomiting
– Sensitivity to light or sound
– Visual disturbances
– Thin clear nasal discharge
– Pain made worse by routine physical activity
– Dull, aching pain 
– Sensation of tightness or pressure across forehead or on the sides and back of head
– Tenderness on scalp, neck and shoulder muscles
Location of painPain, pressure and fullness in cheeks, brow or foreheadPain usually occurs on one side of head, but often on both sidesPain over both sides of the head

Sinus headache relief: what causes sinus headaches? 

If you indeed have a sinus headache, it is most likely a symptom of sinusitis, in which your sinus has become inflamed from allergies and/or other triggers such as bacterial/viral infections.

Sinus headaches may also be caused by allergic rhinitis, that cause you discomfort over an extended period of time. Prolonged sinus infections and sinus blockages can also trigger sinus headaches. 

Treatments for sinus headache relief

Unless you’re experiencing the symptoms of fever, severe pain or infection that lasts for more than seven days, it’s unlikely that you’ll require medical treatment for acute sinusitis. 

Although most doctors would usually recommend allowing the sinus infections to run their course and resolve on their own, that does not mean you cannot look at home remedies in the meantime. A sinus headache remedy can help relieve sinus headache pain by thinning out the congestion trapped in your sinuses. 

Home remedies for sinus headache relief

Remedies like bathing in steam and using a humidifier can help reduce congestion of your nasal passages and promote drainage by relieving pressure. 

You can also do other things to promote drainage from your nose such as pressing gently on your sinus pressure points and blowing your nose by tipping your head forward. Pushing the area underneath your eyes above your cheekbones in and up may also offer some much-needed relief. 

There are plenty of low-effort things that you can do for sinus headache relief. Find a sinus headache remedy that suits you by reading more from this list.

Over-the-counter medication for sinus headache relief

Healthcare professional dispensing sinus headache relief medications over the counter
You can get sinus headache relief medications over the counter in Singapore.

If the pain is getting unbearable or interfering with something that you need to get done, you can go for over-the-counter drugs to get sinus headache relief. 

Analgesics like Ibuprofen and Tylenol are common options that offer sinus headache relief, while also treating other possible symptoms like an aching jaw and a fever. You can also try decongestants like Afrin or Sudafed, which may help you breathe a little easier. 

However, it’s important to take note that these drugs don’t address the underlying inflammation, which is causing your pain. They simply alleviate the pain that you feel. 

Looking to purchase decongestant nasal sprays? Learn all about them and how effective they are for nasal problems.

As much as these drugs offer the quick relief you yearn for, they should be discontinued immediately if your sinus headache gets worse or continues over several days. Also, note that decongestants shouldn’t be used for more than three days without first consulting your doctor. 

Rebound congestion and headaches are a severe consequence that may make taking control of your sinus headaches a complicated task.

Prescription medication for sinus headache relief

Prescription medication is another way to treat sinus headache relief. 

These include antihistamines, decongestants and mucolytics, which are medications that help reduce inflammation and swelling in your sinuses and clear your mucus. 

Unless your sinusitis is caused by a bacterial infection, antibiotics are usually not required. If your sinus infection does not resolve or not responding to treatment for more than 3 months, your doctor may recommend a steroid injection into your sinuses, which can start working quickly and usually last for a long time.

What’s the difference between decongestants and antihistamines? Find out here. 

Sinus headache relief: when to see a doctor

Not all headaches fit the mould. If you’re still not sure what type of headache you have, speak to a doctor. Your doctor will make a diagnosis while considering your lifestyle and other factors that may contribute to your headaches. 

You should consult a doctor immediately if your sinus headaches

  • pose pain for longer than 10 days or keep coming back or
  • are accompanied by fever or throat inflammation that last over a week.

The sooner you see a doctor, the sooner you’ll be able to get long-term relief. 

Have a throat inflammation? Find out more about the cause and treatment here.

A step ahead of sinus headache relief: how to prevent sinus headache

To prevent sinus headaches, avoid things that irritate your nose and your sinuses. This will help reduce the congestion and inflammation that triggered sinus headaches. 

Avoid triggers

Identifying your triggers and avoiding them is a surefire way to prevent sinus headaches. Steer clear of allergens where possible. Some common allergens include seasonal allergens like pollen and other allergens like dust and haze particles.

Reduce unhealthy vices and protect yourself

Smoking and cigarette smoke can increase your chances of getting sinusitis by damaging the natural protective elements of your respiratory system. As an added plus, quitting smoking can also help prevent many other episodes of chronic and acute illnesses, apart from just sinusitis. 

If air pollution and smog pollute your environment, you can consider donning protective gear like an N95 face mask that can help prevent smoke particles from entering your body and causing discomfort to your nasal passage. 

Practice good personal hygiene 

Washing your hands frequently can go a long way in preventing your body from picking up viruses and bacteria that can cause your sinuses to become infected, thereby preventing sinus headaches.

Do light exercises

Meeting your physical activity checklists with exercises can also help reduce sinus pressure. 

Physical activity can rejuvenate you by increasing blood circulation and temporarily relieving congestion to help reduce sinus headaches and ease breathing. 

If exercising is uncomfortable when you’re sick and congested, you can look toward less strenuous options that also combine relaxation techniques. One example is yoga. 

Woman drinking water after exercising, preventing sinus headaches
Doing light exercises and staying hydrated is a good way to prevent sinus headaches and falling sick in general.

Stay hydrated

Increasing your water and fluid intake to hydrate can help promote drainage and prevent sinus inflammation. 

Dehydration can make your sinus passages dry out, and prevent drainage, which lead to a sinus inflammation and a headache. Keep those pesky sinus headaches away by staying hydrated, even if it means doing so in the form of broth soups, ice cubes, tea or water-based fruits and vegetables. 

Reduce estrogen effects

Estrogen seems to trigger or make your headaches worse. You may want to avoid or reduce the medications you take that contain estrogen, such as birth control pills and hormone replacement therapy.

While they may be separate necessities, you can still speak with your doctor about finding suitable alternatives or varying dosages that fit you. 

Get sinus headache relief and a proper diagnosis with MyDoc remotely

With MyDoc’s virtual consultation features, you don’t have to trouble yourself with visiting a clinic and enduring the long queues with a blistering headache. 

Book an appointment and see a Singapore-licensed doctor in as little as nine minutes, and get an accurate diagnosis for the cause of your headaches. 

Worried about remote consultation not offering medication for your sinus headache? MyDoc offers e-prescription so you can have your medication delivered right to your home. Alternatively, you can pick your medication up from a Guardian pharmacy near you. 

Sinus headaches are very easy to misdiagnose. Think you have a sinus headache? Schedule a virtual consultation session with a doctor on MyDoc and have your doubts clarified instantly

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