Headaches can be caused by many things. One of the most common causes of headache is sinusitis or inflammation of the sinuses. Many sinus headaches respond to at-home treatment. If you try at-home treatments and don’t find relief, it’s time to schedule a visit with the ENT. You may have chronic sinusitis.

Symptoms of a sinus headache

Sinus headaches are caused by swelling of the membranes that line the sinuses. This swelling keeps the sinuses from draining properly.

When the sinuses don’t drain as they should, air, mucus, pus and other discharge gets trapped in the sinuses. The pain from this type of headache occurs under the eyes and in the area of the upper jaw. Sometimes a sinus headache is misidentified as a toothache. Many a dentist has performed an x-ray on a “sore” tooth only to discover inflammation in the maxillary sinus.

Most sinus headaches get worse as you change positions. Bending forward or lying down can increase pain. The most effective way to relieve the pain is to reduce the inflammation and increase drainage.

Using moisture

Moisture can bring relief to sinus headache sufferers. You can breathe steam from a pot of boiling water, inhale the steam from a shower, or even use a cool mist humidifier. When mucus is dry or thick it cannot drain and further blocks the sinuses. Each of these methods thins this mucus and this opens up the sinus passages to promote drainage.

You can also rinse the sinus and nasal passages with a warm, sterile saline solution. Nasal irrigation removes dried mucus and other secretions and irritants. This reduces inflammation and allows the sinuses to drain properly.

If you are turned off by the idea of nasal irrigation, you may try using saline nasal spray. Saline spray will add moisture, thin mucus and increase drainage. This is not to be confused with nasal decongestant sprays. Saline nasal spray can be used freely and frequently. Nasal decongestants must be used with extreme care.

Some people find relief with application of moist compresses. The concept is the same as from breathing steam. Moist heat thins mucus and promotes drainage.

Moisture needs to be taken internally as well. Be sure to drink at least the recommended eight glasses of water a day to keep mucus thin.

Using over-the-counter medication

The most common over the counter medications for sinus headaches are decongestants, antihistamines and NSAIDS. Sometimes these medications are packaged in combination.

Decongestants. Decongestants work by reducing inflammation in the blood vessels. This works to thin mucus and promote drainage. It is important to drink plenty of fluids when using any form of decongestant.

Be careful when using nasal decongestant sprays. These may provide temporary relief but can result in a rebound effect. The decongestant reduces the blood vessels in the nose on a temporary basis. This reduces inflammation. However, the blood vessels become immune to the medication and you must spray more and more.

Side effects of decongestants include nervousness, problems sleeping, and dizziness. You should not take any over-the-counter decongestant without consulting your doctor if you suffer from:

  • Diabetes
  • Glaucoma
  • Heart conditions
  • High blood pressure
  • Prostate problems
  • Thyroid problems

Antihistamines. If the congestion, mucus and inflammation are the result of allergic rhinitis then antihistamines may provide some relief. However, antihistamines are completely ineffective if the inflammation isn’t a result of an allergic reaction. Some of the older antihistamines caused drowsiness. The newer formulations do not include diphenhydramine and do not cause drowsiness. Other common side effects include dizziness, dry mouth, nausea and blurred vision.

NSAIDs. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications reduce the headache pain by reducing inflammation. These are not the same type of steroids that are abused by athletes. NSAIDs are ibuprofen, acetaminophen and aspirin. Frequent use of NSAIDs can result in stomach upset and bleeding.

When at-home treatment fails

When at home treatment fails or if symptoms return again and again it is time to visit the ENT.

Your ENT can determine the cause of your recurring sinus headaches and prescribe medications to bring relief. If your sinuses are not draining properly, your ENT can perform a simple balloon sinus surgery to reshape the sinus openings.