Sinus Headache: how to identify it, symptoms and treatments

Headache is common and the causes are many. A well recognized cause of headache is sinus headache. Here we take a look at this condition in a bit more detail.

Defining Sinus headache

Sinuses are small spaces that are present within the skull bone. They have a lining within them that secretes mucus, offering a defense against infections that enter through the nostril. They are located around the nostril and in the forehead. There are 4 different sinuses in the skull.

Sometimes, the sinuses can get infected and filled up with excessive mucus. When this happens the inflammation within the sinus can block the opening, causing a great degree of pain to the patient. This pain manifests as headache and requires treatment.

Causes of Sinus Headache

The most common cause is viral. Allergic conditions such as hay fever are also well recognized causes. In the early stages, the mucus that is produced in response to the infection can cause an increase in the amount of secretions. Over time, these get thicker and ultimately block the opening, keeping the infection within and promoting the growth of bacteria. This causes the pain.

Sinus Headache Symptoms

Patients complain of a distressing headache that is typically described as a ‘pressure’ in the head. This pain may get worse with a change in position, especially when bending forward. The face may be tender to touch, particularly over the sinuses.

Associated with the headache are symptoms such as fever and body pains. Generalised tiredness is common and patients may lose their appetite. Patients may also notice a thick yellow discharge from the nostril. Coughing may be a feature particularly when lying down. This is because the mucus drains to the back of the throat and irritates it – this is called post nasal drip. On rare occasions, the local lymph nodes may be enlarged due to infection.


Diagnosis of sinus headache is clinical. Patients typically present with the symptoms described above, so making a clinical diagnosis is fairly straightforward. In some cases a CT scan of the sinuses may be conducted.


In the initial stages, simple home remedies may help. Keeping well hydrated and inhaling steam or humidified air can help loosen the secretions, make it thinner and allow for better drainage. Patients can use over the counter painkillers such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs to help relive the headache.

Sometimes, patients may need nasal decongestants that will help relieve the stuffiness in the sinuses and reduce the symptoms the patient is experiencing. However, it is strongly advised that patients seek medical advice before taking any of these medications.

Nasal sprays are commonly used treatments that can offer temporary relief from symptoms. However, if the above measures fail and there is clear evidence of a bacterial infection, patients may benefit from a course of antibiotics.

Finally, failing all the above, surgery may be performed to enlarge the openings of the maxillary sinuses to allow free drainage of the secretions and relieve headache.


Sinus headache is a distressing condition that is causes due to inflammation or infection of the sinuses. Treatment includes simple measures, though medical or surgical treatment may be needed.

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