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Coping With Sinus Headaches

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Updated April 30, 2012

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Coping With Sinus Headaches

Sometimes that dull, throbbing pain in your face is a sign that you’ve caught the dreaded common cold. Other times it can signal another problem -- your sinuses. Sinus pain can be difficult to treat, and the fact that migraines and tension headaches can produce similar symptoms further complicates the diagnosis. If you suffer from sinus headaches, find out how you can ease the symptoms and find some relief.

How do I know if my headache is a sinus headache?

A sinus headache is typically felt in the cheekbones, forehead, and behind the bridge of the nose. The pain is usually a constant, throbbing pain. Typically, a sinus headache worsens when you move your head or bend over. The pain may also intensify when you lie down. Sinus headaches may be worse in the morning and improve during the day as mucus drains. Some individuals are also more likely to experience sinus headaches in colder, rainy weather.

A sinus headache is usually accompanied by other symptoms. This can include a sore throat, cough, fatigue, and an achy pain around the teeth. Sometimes, especially if the sinus headache is caused by sinusitis or sinus infection, a fever will also be present. This can also cause nasal discharge that is a yellow-green color. A feeling of fullness in the ears and facial swelling may also occur. Usually, the sinuses will be quite tender to the touch.

How can my sinus problem be diagnosed?

In order to determine if you have a sinus infection, your doctor may conduct a few tests for a proper diagnosis.

The first test you might undergo is a nasal endoscopy or examination of the sinuses. Your doctor may use her finger to tap on your sinuses to determine if they are tender. She might also use a small light to look inside your sinuses for swelling and other signs of infection. If your doctor suspects a sinus infection, she may take a sample of your mucus in order to test it for bacteria or fungus. A sinus infection that is caused by a bacterial or fungal infection will typically be treated with antibiotics, while an infection caused by a virus does not require antibiotics. Your doctor may also send you for a CT or MRI in order to get a better look at your sinuses.

If a sinus infection is ruled out, your doctor may wish to examine you for other symptoms. Sometimes it's discovered that a tension headache is a likely cause, because of the feelings of tightness around the head and pain or stiffness in the neck. A migraine can also cause sinus-type symptoms, but tends to be more intense and occur with other symptoms, such as nausea, vomiting, and sensitivity to light and sound. Allergies, such as hay fever, may also cause a headache due to nasal congestion. If allergies are suspected, your physician may send you for allergy testing. Treating the allergies often help alleviates sinus headache symptoms. In rare instances, symptoms of a sinus headache can signal a tumor or cluster headache.

How can my sinus headache be treated?

For mild sinus headaches that last a few days, at-home remedies can be effective at easing the pain. Remedies that are designed to help lubricate the nasal passages and drain excess mucus can help ease the sinus headache. Try using a humidifier or run a hot, steamy shower to help decongest. Some doctors recommend using a saline-based nasal irrigation system. Over-the-counter medications, like decongestants, antihistamines and pain relievers, may also help.

If your doctor suspects a bacterial or fungal sinus infection, they may prescribe you a 10-14 day course of antibiotics. If allergies are the suspected cause, your doctor might prescribe a corticosteroid nasal spray. Sinus surgery is a last resort option, if other methods are unsuccessful or if a structural abnormality is seen as the cause for sinus problems. Surgeries have a high rate of success, and are conducted by an E.N.T. (Ear, Nose and Throat) doctor as an outpatient procedure.

Sources:

Dowson AJ, Bradford S, Lipscombe S, Rees T, Sender J, Watson D, Wells Managing chronic headaches in the clinic.C.Int J Clin Pract. 2004 Dec;58(12):1142-51.

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