- Summit Medical Group Web Site
- 10 Causes of a Runny Nose and Headache
- Sinus Headaches
- What to do about a sinus headache
- Sinus Migraine: When Sinus Pain is More than a Headache
- Allergy, sinusitis, and sinus headache resources
- References & Resources
- Sinus Headaches
- Sinus headache
Summit Medical Group Web Site
What is a sinus headache?
A sinus headache is a headache that occurs because your sinuses are swollen closed, congested with mucus, or infected. The sinuses are hollow spaces in the bones of your face. They connect with the nose through small openings. Like the nose, they are lined with membranes that make mucus. Mucus drains through the small openings to the nose.
What is the cause?
If you have a cold or allergies, the openings of your sinuses may be blocked by excess mucus or by swelling of the tissue that lines the sinuses. When drainage of mucus from the sinuses is blocked, the sinuses become congested. They may also become infected with bacteria, a virus, or even fungus. The infection can make the sinuses even more clogged. The pressure caused by swelling and congestion or infection causes sinus headaches.
Most sinus problems happen when you have had a cold. Often hay fever or irritation from dust or smoke causes swelling of the sinuses. Sometimes a tooth infection spreads to the sinuses.
If you have injured the bones in your nose or have a deformity of the nose that causes the sinuses not to drain properly, you may be more likely to get sinus congestion and infection.
What are the symptoms?
Symptoms may include:
- Pain or pressure in the forehead or around the eyes and cheeks
- Tender skin and tender bones over and under the eyes.
- A feeling like your upper teeth hurt
Blowing your nose, bending forward, or jarring your head (as might happen when you jog or do aerobics) may make your headache feel worse.
How is it diagnosed?
Your healthcare provider will ask about your symptoms and medical history and examine you. Tests are often not needed but may include:
- X-ray of your sinuses
- CT scan, which uses X-rays and a computer to show detailed pictures of the sinuses.
How is it treated?
Acetaminophen, aspirin, or ibuprofen can help relieve pain.
- Check with your healthcare provider before you give any medicine that contains aspirin or salicylates to a child or teen. This includes medicines like baby aspirin, some cold medicines, and Pepto-Bismol. Children and teens who take aspirin are at risk for a serious illness called Reye’s syndrome.
- Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medicines (NSAIDs), such as aspirin or ibuprofen, may cause stomach bleeding and other problems. These risks increase with age. Read the label and take as directed. Unless recommended by your healthcare provider, do not take NSAIDs for more than 10 days for any reason.
Your healthcare provider may prescribe a decongestant. If your provider thinks you might have a sinus infection, he or she may also prescribe an antibiotic. Antihistamines may help if allergies are a cause.
Your head should stop hurting when the sinuses become less congested. This usually takes about 1 to 3 days after you start treatment.
How can I take care of myself?
- Avoid smoke, other inhaled irritants, and allergens, such as animal dander.
- Add moisture to the air with a humidifier or a vaporizer, unless you have mold allergy (mold may grow in your vaporizer).
- Inhale steam from a basin of hot water or in the shower to open up the sinuses and relieve pain.
- Put warm, most washcloths on your face.
- Use decongestants as directed. Never use nonprescription nasal spray decongestants for more than 3 days. After 3 days they may cause your symptoms to get worse.
- Get plenty of rest and drink a lot of water to keep the mucus thin and runny.
- Elevate your head in bed, but only slightly.
- Take all of your medicine as prescribed.
- Ask your healthcare provider:
- How and when you will hear your test results
- How long it will take to recover
- What activities you should avoid and when you can return to your normal activities
- How to take care of yourself at home
- What symptoms or problems you should watch for and what to do if you have them
- Make sure you know when you should come back for a checkup.
How can I help prevent sinus headaches?
- Treat the problems that might cause the headaches and congestion, such as allergies.
- Use oral or nasal decongestants before you fly, travel to high altitudes, or swim in deep water.
- Use a humidifier in your home if the air is particularly dry (for example, if you wake up in the morning with a dry mouth).
10 Causes of a Runny Nose and Headache
1. Cold and flu
A runny nose is a common symptom of both a cold and the flu. These illnesses are caused by viruses. A viral infection can irritate your nose and throat. This causes fluid to build up in your sinuses and nasal passages, making them swollen.
Pressure and swelling in your sinuses can lead to a headache. Other flu symptoms, such as a fever, may also cause headache pain.
Other cold and flu symptoms include:
- sore throat
- muscle aches
- sore eyes
- loss of appetite
Sinusitis is inflammation in the sinuses around your nose. A cold or flu can make your sinuses swollen, tender, and inflamed, as can bacterial sinusitis. This can block the nasal and sinus passageways and make them fill up with mucus.
Sinusitis is usually caused by a cold virus. It will normally get better by itself in less than 10 days. If the swelling and fluid buildup lasts for a longer time, your sinuses may also get a bacterial infection.
Sinusitis causes a runny nose and throbbing face and headache pain. These symptoms happen because of the mucus buildup, blockages, and pressure in the sinuses.
Other symptoms of sinusitis are:
- difficulty breathing through your nose
- thick, yellow, or green mucus from the nose
- pain, tenderness, and swelling around the eyes, cheeks, and nose
- pressure or pain in your forehead that worsens when bending down
- earache or pressure
- cough or sore throat
An allergic reaction happens when your immune system overreacts to substances called allergens. Pollen, dust, and animal dander are common allergens.
If you have allergies, your immune system response may cause a runny nose.
Allergies are also linked to headaches. This may happen due to nasal or sinus congestion. This is when there’s too much fluid or blockage in the tubes that run from your nose to your throat. The pressure in your sinuses can trigger migraine and sinus headaches.
4. Ear infection
Ear infections can be caused by a virus or bacterium. An infection can spread to the ear canal from a sore throat or lung infection. They also commonly cause fluid to build up in the ear canal.
Fluid from an ear infection may drain into the throat and lead to a nasal infection, causing a runny nose. Pressure and pain from the fluid buildup in the ear can cause headaches.
Ear infections are more common in babies and toddlers because the eustachian tubes between their middle ear and throat are more horizontal. Adults have more vertical eustachian tubes. This helps to prevent ear infections because it’s easier for fluid to drain out.
Other symptoms of ear infections are:
- fluid draining from ear
- trouble sleeping
- loss of hearing
- loss of balance
5. Respiratory syncytial virus
Respiratory syncytial virus, also called RSV, causes an infection in your nose, throat, and lungs. Most children get this common virus before age 2. Adults can also get RSV.
In most healthy children and adults, respiratory syncytial virus causes mild cold-like symptoms. This includes a stuffy or runny nose and a slight headache.
Very small children and older adults may get more seriously ill from this virus. Other symptoms may include:
- sore throat
- shortness of breath
- loss of appetite
6. Occupational asthma
Asthma that’s caused by breathing in irritating substances while at work is called occupational asthma. It may be caused by:
- chemical fumes
Symptoms are similar to other types of asthma. However, occupational asthma symptoms may improve or go away once you’re away from the trigger. On the other hand, if you continue to have exposure to the irritating substance, your symptoms may continue and worsen over time.
You may get a runny nose and headache pain from occupational asthma. This happens because substances in the air irritate or inflame the lining of your nose, throat, and lungs.
Fluid and swelling increase the pressure in your sinuses causing headaches.
Other symptoms include:
- chest tightness
- shortness of breath
7. Nasal polyps
Nasal polyps are soft teardrop-shaped growths in the lining of your nose or sinuses. They’re typically painless and noncancerous.
You might get nasal polyps because of irritation from allergies, infections, or asthma.
Some nasal polyps don’t cause symptoms at all. Having larger, or too many nasal polyps, can cause blockages in your nose and sinuses. This leads to swelling and a backup of fluid and mucus.
You might get a runny nose and sinus pressure that causes headaches.
Other symptoms include:
- difficulty breathing through your nose
- pressure around the eyes
- breathing problems
- frequent sinus infections
- a reduced sense of smell
8. Migraine headaches
Migraine involves a severe headache attack that might happen several times a month or once in a while.
Some people with migraine attacks may have auras (such as seeing bright or wavy flashes of light). Migraine can also cause other symptoms, including a stuffy and runny nose.
Causes of migraine aren’t well-understood but may be triggered by:
- bright light
- loud noises
- a lack of sleep
- too much sleep
- strong smells
Changes in hormones, drinking alcohol, or certain foods can also contribute to this condition. Migraine symptoms include:
- nasal congestion
- clear fluid from the nose
- throbbing or pulsing pain
- changes in vision
- sensitivity to bright light
Someone who’s pregnant may also experience a runny nose and headache. This is common in early pregnancy.
Changing hormones make your nasal passages swell. This may lead to nasal congestion, pressure behind the eyes and in the forehead, and sinus headaches.
Headaches can worsen if you have nausea and vomiting during pregnancy. This can lead to dehydration and poor nutrition, triggering headache pain.
Some pregnant women also have migraine attacks. These may cause severe pain, sensitivity to light, vomiting, and seeing auras.
10. Brain fluid leak
Brain fluid is also called cerebrospinal fluid (CSF). It can leak if there’s a tear or hole in the soft tissue covering over the brain or spinal cord.
A brain fluid leak in the head can cause a runny nose and headache pain.
A brain fluid leak can happen without any reason. It may be caused by a fall, injury, or blow to the head or neck. A tumor can also cause a brain fluid leak.
Other symptoms include:
- headaches that lessen when laying down
- chronic nose drip
- a salty or metallic taste in your mouth
- fluid from the ear
- nausea and vomiting
- neck stiffness or pain
- ringing in the ears
- loss of balance
Doctors often recommend letting sinus infects resolve on their own. It’s actually best practice for adults to not receive medical treatment for acute sinusitis unless they experience certain symptoms, like fever, severe pain, or infection that lasts more than seven days.
If you have a sinus headache, thinning out the congestion trapped in your sinuses may help. Try running a humidifier or irrigating your sinuses with a saline solution to cleanse the area.
Breathing in steam may also help. Applying a warm, wet washcloth to the area of your sinuses may promote drainage and relieve pressure.
You can also try to promote sinus drainage by gently pressing on your sinus pressure points. Start with the area at the bridge of your nose between your eyes, and either tap or apply continuous pressure for about one minute. This might loosen blockage caused by trapped mucus in your sinuses.
To promote drainage from your nose, press lightly on both sides of your nose at once before tipping your head forward and blowing your nose. If you push the area underneath your eyes at the top of your cheekbones in and up, you may also experience some pressure relief.
Analgesics, such as ibuprofen (Advil) and acetaminophen (Tylenol), can dull the pain you feel from a sinus headache. They also may treat other symptoms, like an achy jaw or fever.
But these drugs don’t address the underlying inflammation that causes the pain you feel. If your sinus headache gets worse or continues over the course of several days, discontinue using analgesics and speak with your doctor about what’s going on.
If home remedies aren’t helping, you may want to try decongestants, such as oxymetazoline (Afrin) or pseudoephedrine (Sudafed).
But don’t take a decongestant for more than three days without talking to your doctor about your sinus blockage. Oxymetazoline can cause rebound congestion after three days.
If a sinus infection is causing your sinus headache, your doctor may prescribe antihistamines, mucolytics (medications that clear your mucus), and decongestants. Your doctor won’t prescribe antibiotics, however, unless your experiencing complications from sinusitis caused by a bacterial infection.
If it’s allergies causing your headaches, your doctor may prescribe antihistamines or corticosteroid shots.
There are alternative treatments that may help relieve sinus headaches, too. A review paper in Alternative Medicine Review suggests bromelain, a mixture of enzymes found in pineapple juice, may thin nasal secretions. The review also suggests that stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) may bring relief to cases of long-standing rhinitis.
If you have a serious sinus infection, it’s important to remember that these methods of treatment won’t cure the condition or provide instant relief.
What to do about a sinus headache
Some people may require surgery to widen the sinuses. The procedure might involve removing a small amount of tissue from the sinuses or inflating a tiny balloon device within the sinuses to widen the sinus passages.
Share on PinterestThe 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 heatproof 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 (tsp) of salt and 1 tsp of baking soda in the water
- wash hands with soap and water
- pour a small amount of the solution into a cupped palm
- sniff the water into the nostril, one at a time
- repeat until the nose feels clearer
A warm washcloth
Holding a warm washcloth to the face can ease pain and pressure:
- run a clean washcloth under hot water and wring out
- apply across the bridge of the nose and cheeks
- hold the washcloth in place for a few minutes
- repeat several times per day
Sinus Migraine: When Sinus Pain is More than a Headache
Allergy, sinusitis, and sinus headache resources
There are a number of very good resources available for people suffering from allergies, sinusitis, and sinus headaches:
- Patient.info Sinusitis Forum Discussion
- Patient.info Allergic Disorders Allergic Discussion
- eHealth Forum Sinusitis Forum
- Chronic Sinusitis Sufferers Facebook Group
- Chronic Sinusitis Support Group
Migraineurs can use the search feature on the Axon Optics blog to find information on specific migraine types, migraine treatments, tips for coping with migraine related issues like light sensitivity, and much more.
References and Resources (Yes, we did our homework): The information in this article is based on an interview with Jessica Ailani M.D. who is the Director of the Medstar Georgetown Headache Center and Associate Professor of Neurology at Georgetown University Hospital. Additional info came from over 15 references including Dr. Goadsby’s article from The Journal of Headache and Pain.
References & Resources
What are the sinuses?
Sinuses are air-filled cavities (spaces) located in your forehead, cheekbones, and behind the bridge of your nose (see illustration). The sinuses produce a thin mucus that drains out of the channels of the nose.
When a sinus becomes inflamed, usually as the result of an allergic reaction, an infection, or a tumor, the inflammation prevents the mucus from draining. This causes a pain similar to that of a headache.
What are the symptoms of sinus headaches?
Sinus headaches can cause a deep and constant pain in the cheekbones, forehead, or bridge of the nose. The pain usually gets worse with sudden head movement or straining, and with other sinus symptoms such as nasal discharge, feeling of fullness in the ears, fever, and facial swelling.
Your doctor needs to determine whether the symptoms of headache are actually a sinus problem. If your headache is truly caused by a sinus blockage, such as an infection, you will likely have a fever. Your doctor may order a CT scan or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), along with a physical exam, to see if there is a blockage in your sinuses.
Do allergies cause headaches?
It is a misconception that allergies cause headaches. However, allergies can cause sinus congestion, which can lead to headache pain. If you have allergies, the treatment for your allergy will not relieve your headache pain. The two conditions generally must be treated separately.
Do migraine headaches cause sinus pain?
Migraine headaches are associated with nasal congestion and discharge as one of the symptoms — the headache is not necessarily caused by the congestion, but is associated with it. Studies show that more than 95% of headaches that patients or doctors label as “sinus headaches” are actually migraines with associated nasal congestion. The use of decongestants or antibiotics is not needed and may actually make the condition worse.
Share Facebook Twitter LinkedIn Email Get useful, helpful and relevant health + wellness information enews
Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy
Nutrition and Dietary Supplements
Several supplements may help prevent or treat sinus headaches, either by reducing sinus inflammation, or by helping to ward off colds. (See Sinusitis for more details.) Because supplements may have side effects, or interact with medications, you should take them only under the supervision of a knowledgeable health care provider.
- Bromelain. Several studies suggest that bromelain, an enzyme derived from pineapples, may help reduce inflammation and swelling and relieve symptoms of sinusitis. However, not all studies agree. Bromelain is often combined with quercetin, a flavonoid or plant pigment responsible for the colors found in fruits and vegetables, which may act as an antihistamine. Bromelain may increase the risk of bleeding, so people who take blood thinners, such as warfarin (Coumadin) or clopidogrel (Plavix) should not take bromelain without talking to their doctor first. Taking bromelain with ACE inhibitors may cause a drop in blood pressure, called hypotension. Bromelain may interact with certain antibiotics as well. Speak with your doctor.
- Quercetin. In test tubes, quercetin stops the production and release of histamine, which causes allergy symptoms, such as a runny nose and watery eyes. It is often combined with bromelain. However, there is not yet much evidence that quercetin would work the same way in humans. More studies are needed. Some people may prefer water-soluble forms of quercetin, such as hesperidin methyl chalcone (HMC) or quercetin chalcone. Quercetin may interact with certain medications, so ask your doctor before taking it.
- Probiotics (Lactobacillus). Probiotics, or “friendly” bacteria, may help if you are taking antibiotics for sinusitis. They may also reduce your chances of developing allergies. People who have very weakened immune systems or who take drugs to suppress the immune system should ask their doctor before taking probiotics.
The use of herbs is a time-honored approach to strengthening the body and treating disease. Herbs, however, can trigger side effects and can interact with other herbs, supplements, or medications. For these reasons, you should take herbs with care, under the supervision of a health care practitioner.
As with supplements, there are many herbs that may help reduce your chances of getting a sinus headache by preventing or treating a cold, boosting your immune system, or reducing sinus inflammation.
Sinupret, a proprietary formulation containing European elder (Sambucus nigra), common sorrel (Rumex acetosa), cowslip (Primula veris), European vervain (Verbena officinalis), and gentian (Gentiana lutea). In two studies, Sinupret was found to work better than placebo in relieving symptoms of sinusitis. The herbs it contains may work by thinning mucus and helping the sinuses drain, and they may also help strengthen the immune system.
Although research is lacking, other herbs have been used traditionally to treat headaches:
- Chinese skullcap (Scutellaria baicalensis)
- Feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium)
- Willow bark (Salix spp.)
People who take blood thinners, or women who are pregnant or breastfeeding, should not take these herbs. People who are allergic to aspirin should not take willow bark. Feverfew can interact with several medications. If you are allergic to ragweed you may also be allergic to feverfew.
One of the most common reasons people seek homeopathic care is to relieve chronic headaches. Few studies have examined the effectiveness of specific homeopathic remedies. Professional homeopaths, however, may recommend treatments for sinus headaches based on their knowledge and clinical experience. In one study of homeopathy for sinusitis, more than 80% of the participants had significant improvement in their symptoms after taking the homeopathic remedy for 2 weeks.
Before prescribing a remedy, homeopaths take into account a person’s constitutional type. In homeopathic terms, a person’s constitution is his or her physical, emotional, and intellectual makeup. An experienced homeopath assesses all of these factors when determining the most appropriate remedy for a particular individual.
The following are remedies commonly prescribed for sinus congestion and headache:
- Arsenicum album. For throbbing, burning sinus pain that is relieved by lying upright in a cool room with open windows.
- Belladonna. For throbbing headaches that come on suddenly and feel worse with motion and light; pain is partially relieved by pressure, standing, sitting, or leaning backwards.
- Bryonia. For headaches with a steady, sharp pain that occurs most often in the forehead but may radiate to the back of the head; symptoms tend to worsen with movement and light touch, but firm pressure alleviates the pain; the person for whom this remedy is most appropriate is usually irritable and may experience nausea, vomiting, and constipation.
- Hepar sulphuricum. For headaches described as “a nail being driven between the eyes,” these types of headaches are often accompanied by thick, yellow nasal discharge; symptoms tend to worsen with movement and light touch of the scalp and improve with pressure.
- Iris versicolor. For throbbing headaches that occur on one side of the head, especially after eating sweets; visual disturbances may also occur; these headaches are worse in the early morning, during spring and fall, and symptoms tend to worsen with vomiting.
- Kali bichromicum. For sinus headaches and congestion; pain often occurs between and behind the eyes; symptoms typically progress throughout the morning, worsen with cold and motion, and improve with warmth and pressure.
- Mercurius. For raw, swollen nostrils; this remedy is most appropriate for individuals whose pain feels as though the head has been placed in a vise; pain may also extend to the teeth; symptoms tend to worsen at night and the individual may alternate between sweating and having the chills; nasal discharge may be bloody.
- Natrum muriaticum. For headaches and congestion associated with allergies.
- Pulsatilla. For headaches triggered by eating rich, fatty foods, particularly ice cream; pain may move around the head but tends to be concentrated in the forehead or on one side of the head and may be accompanied by digestive problems or occur around the time of menstruation; symptoms tend to worsen at night and with coughing and blowing the nose; children often develop these symptoms while at school.
- Silicea. For sinus pain that improves with pressure, head wraps, and warm compresses.
- Spigelia. For stinging, burning, or throbbing sinus pain that often occurs on the left side of the head; symptoms tend to worsen with cold weather and motion but may be temporarily relieved by cold compresses and lying on the right side with the head propped up.
Although studies are few and have found conflicting results, some people may find that acupuncture helps relieve symptoms of sinusitis. An acupuncturist diagnosis headaches not as migraine, tension, or sinus, but rather as conditions deriving from “energetic” imbalances. Acupuncturists usually describe sinusitis as “dampness” which creates inflammation and congestion in the mucus membranes. This dampness is cleared by strengthening the spleen meridian and by working with the stomach meridian. Practitioners often perform needling therapy and/or moxibustion, a technique in which the herb mugwort is burned over specific acupuncture points, for this condition.
Although there are no studies on using chiropractic to treat sinus headaches, some practitioners suggest that it may decrease pain and improve sinus drainage for some people.
For headaches in general, relaxation techniques can be helpful. This is especially true for frequent headaches, such as sinus headaches. You may want to try these techniques:
- Biofeedback to control muscle tension
- Learn to meditate, breathe deeply, or try other relaxation exercises, such as yoga or hypnotherapy
- Try guided imagery techniques
The goal is usually to relieve your symptoms and treat an infection if you have one. You might take antibiotics, as well as antihistamines or decongestants for a short time. You can also use inhaled nasal decongestants, but only for up to 3 days. Longer use can make your symptoms worse.
You can also take pain relievers, or if they don’t help, your doctor can prescribe corticosteroids to ease the inflammation in your sinuses. If an allergic reaction causes your sinus flare-ups, you might need a preventive allergy treatment.
You can also feel better with simple at-home tricks, such as drinking more fluids, using a humidifier, or saltwater nasal spray.
If you take decongestant and pain-relieving medicines too often, you might get medication overuse headaches. It’s important to touch base with your doctor if you’re using any medication for a long time to relieve your headaches. Decongestants also can raise your blood pressure, so if you have high blood pressure, talk to your doctor before you take one.
In rare cases, he may recommend sinus surgery to remove polyps or open up small or constantly swollen sinuses.