How to treat a sinus headache

Sinus headaches affect the area around the nose. Sinus headaches usually follow an infection and cause pain across the bridge of the nose and the cheeks. Sinus headaches can also be the result of allergies.

Sinuses are spaces in the bones of the face. There are four pairs of sinuses across the cheeks, bridge of the nose, and above the eyes. Scientists are not entirely sure what role the sinuses play in the body. It is possible that sinuses make the skull lighter, prevent heat from escaping the head, or help make the voice louder.

Treatment for a sinus headache depends on the underlying cause. A mild sinus headache can often be treated at home.

Fast facts on sinus headache:

  • The primary symptom of a sinus headache is a pain in the sinuses.
  • Treatment for a sinus headache will usually target the underlying cause.
  • Sinus headaches are usually caused by an infection or an allergy.

Sinus headache symptoms

How to treat a sinus headache
An infection or allergy may cause a sinus headache.

The sinuses are lined with a membrane similar to the lining of the nose. If a person has an infection or allergy, this membrane can swell up and cause a sinus headache.

That person may feel painful in their cheeks, the bridge of their nose, and in the area above the nose.

Sometimes, these areas might look swollen. A sinus headache might affect one or both sides of the face.

Sinus headaches are usually caused by an infection, such as sinusitis. A person who develops sinusitis is likely to have other symptoms, including:

  • fever
  • a blocked nose
  • a lessened sense of smell
  • green or yellow mucus when that person blows their nose

Some people find that the pain feels worse after coughing, leaning over, or bending down.

Treatment options for sinus headache

If a sinus headache is not causing too much pain, a person may be able to manage it at home. That person should rest, drink plenty of fluids, and take painkillers.

However, anyone experiencing severe pain from a sinus headache should see a doctor. A person may also need to seek medical advice if:

  • the pain worsens
  • symptoms do not get better after a week
  • painkillers do not help

For a sinus headache caused by sinusitis, a doctor may prescribe decongestants or antibiotics.

A sinus headache caused by an allergy will usually be treated with a nasal spray that contains antihistamines or steroids.

If a person repeatedly gets a sinus headache or has sinusitis for 3 months, a doctor may refer them to an ear, nose, and throat specialist.

The specialist will likely ask about symptoms, take a medical history, and examine that person’s head, nose, and face. The specialist may also take images of the head with an X-ray or MRI scan.

Some people may require surgery to widen the sinuses. The surgery procedure might be performed by cutting away a small amount of tissue from the sinuses or inflating a tiny balloon device within the sinuses to widen the sinus passages.

Treatment at home

The sinuses may be opened up by breathing in steam.
The sinuses may be opened up by breathing in steam.
A person who has a sinus headache caused by sinusitis might be able to treat it with home remedies. These treatments may not work if the pain is very severe, or symptoms last for over a week, however.

Breathing in steam

Breathing in steam can help to open up the nasal passages and sinuses, which may help to relieve pressure and pain:

  • boil some water and allow it to cool slightly
  • pour the water into a large bowl
  • lean the face over the bowl
  • cover the head with a small towel
  • breathe slowly in and out through the nose

Cleaning the nose with a salt water solution

Using a salt water solution can help to decongest the nose:

  • boil roughly 1 pint of water and allow to cool
  • dissolve 1 teaspoon of salt and 1 teaspoon of baking soda in the water
  • wash hands with soap and water
  • pour a small amount of the solution into a hand palm
  • sniff the water into the nostril, one nostril at a time
  • repeat until the nose feels clearer

A warm washcloth

Holding a warm washcloth to the face can ease pain and pressure:

  • soak a clean washcloth in hot water and wring out
  • apply the washcloth across the bridge of the nose and cheeks
  • hold the washcloth in place for a few minutes
  • repeat several times per day
Sinus headache vs. migraine

Research by the American Migraine Foundation found that a migraine is often mistaken for a sinus headache.

A sinus headache and a migraine have some symptoms in common, including:

  • feeling pressure in the face and forehead
  • pain that worsens when moving the head
  • a blocked nose

There are different treatments for a migraine and sinus headaches, so it is important to get the correct diagnosis.

If a person has symptoms of sinusitis followed by pain and pressure in the face, this is probably a sinus headache. If a headache lasts for more than a week or is not cured by antibiotics, it may be a migraine.

A person who has a migraine is likely to experience other symptoms that do not appear with a sinus headache. These symptoms include:

  • being sensitive to light
  • nausea
  • a throbbing headache

How do allergies cause headaches?

hay fever
People with hay fever may feel pain in the same area as a sinus headache.

Allergies, particularly hay fever, can cause headaches.

A person experiencing a headache caused by an allergy will experience pain in the same area of the face as a sinus headache.

The reason is that allergies can cause a blocked or inflamed nose.

A person who has a headache caused by an allergy may experience other symptoms, such as:

  • sneezing
  • red or watering eyes
  • an itchy mouth

A doctor or allergist should be able to find the cause of the allergy and suggest ways to manage and treat it.

A person who experiences headaches regularly may have a medication headache. This problem can happen when that person takes too many painkillers or uses pain relief medication for an extended period.


Sinusitis is a primary cause of a sinus headache. Some forms of this condition can be severe if left untreated. The reason is that the sinuses are close to the brain and any infection could pass to the central nervous system.

If a sinus headache does not improve within a week, a person should seek medical advice. Sinus headaches are usually not serious and can often be treated at home.

It is common for a person to mistake a migraine for a sinus headache. These two conditions require different treatment, so that person should consult a doctor if they have questions about their symptoms.

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