It feels like your head is about to blow – your cheeks and forehead feel like they’re as swollen as five day old road kill in the middle of the summer. You’ve given up trying to breathe through your nose and you’ve now become a dreaded mouth breather. And your upper teethe ache with every pulse you can feel pounding away in your cranium.
Sound familiar? Yep. The dreaded sinus headache. A plague that curses thousands of people annually.
Our sinuses have a fairly major design flaw: The passageways between our nose and sinuses, called ostia, are small, easily clogged, and are on the top of the empty space of our sinuses instead of the bottom to allow easy, gravity-fed drainage. I read a study not too long ago that stated that the ostia haven’t changed since our ancestors walked with their spines oriented more horizontally than vertically. When hominids started living their lives in a more upright manner, the sinus problems began. That means that we have literally been suffering from sinus headaches for millions of years. Thankfully, we have developed medical practices over the years which can help us get rid of sinus headaches – I hate to think of the frustrating lack of relief one could get from banging your head against the cave wall.
Is It Really a Sinus Headache?
It is important to first clarify the difference between a full-fledged, real-deal sinus headache (which can be caused by a number of factors and reasons), and other forms of headaches like a migraine that could be disguising itself as a sinus headache.
The lovely medically inclined people at the Mayo Clinic’s webpage on sinus headaches have come up with a list that helps describe the systems of a potential sinus headache:
- Pain, pressure and fullness in your cheeks, brow or forehead
- Worsening pain if you bend forward or lie down
- Stuffy nose
- Achy feeling in your upper teeth
Migraines can have the symptoms of a stuffy, runny, nose like a sinus headache often does, but a dead give-away of a migraine is nausea and dizziness. Also, an intense sensitivity to light, sound, smell, or sudden movements can be indicators. A migraine can pop up in the front of the head, just like a sinus headache, but they can also move to the back of the head. The pain will have more of a throbbing quality.
Sinus headaches will usually be confined to the facial area. The forehead and cheeks can be tender to the touch, and you might experience nasal drip or a mucous discharge. You can always have a good idea if you have a sinus infection or not if the headache comes on rather suddenly, have a sensitivity like mentioned above, or if you get sick to your stomach when the headache appears.
Getting Rid of Sinus Headaches
Sinus headache treatment should be specific to what is causing it.Sinus headaches can be caused by sinusitis (inflamed and infected sinuses), and these infections are fairly common – the most likely suspects could include: a cold, influenza, seasonal allergies, or hormones.
If you can determine what is causing the irritation, finding the proper method for evicting the sinus headache becomes a whole lot easier, naturally.
Viral infections are very common cause of sinus headaches. Sinus headaches are most often linked to a prior run-in with a respiratory virus, such as the common cold (rhinovirus) or the flu (influenza). The way to get rid of sinus headaches caused by viral infection is to treat the symptoms and patiently wait it out. Symptoms such as facial tenderness, dizziness, migraine-like headaches, mucous discharge, and congestion can be treated with a combination of an analgesic pain reliever (ibuprofen, like Advil or Motrin) and a decongestant (pseudoephedrine, like Sudafed).
Allergies are also a problem that may lead to sinus headaches. The irritation and inflammation caused by pollen or dust allergies can start the sinus headache train rolling towards misery. Allergies don’t cause an infection, but they can make a person more susceptible to an infection by clogging those drainage sites. An antihistamine (Claritin, Benadryl, Zyrtec) will help prevent allergic reactions and cut down on potential inflammation.
Hormones and sinus headaches. While not necessarily common for men (unless there are underlying hormonal imbalances occurring already), hormones can also be a common trigger for a sinus headache for women. If you, as a woman, find that you either get frequent sinus headaches during your period, or if you notice an increase in this type of headache when starting birth control or hormone replacement therapy (since estrogen is thought to be the triggering hormone when present in a person’s system in high concentrations), please make an appointment with your doctor to talk about possibly different dosage options.
Bacterial infections are less common and easier to treat.Another possible cause of sinus infections is bacteria. Though it is common for a physician to automatically prescribe an antibiotic for every sinus infection, this seems rather silly as most sinus infections are viral, and antibiotics have no effect on viruses. However, if sinusitis doesn’t clear up after a week or two, it is reasonable to suspect that the cause is something other than a virus. Tests can determine the culprit. To save time while waiting for results, an antibiotic might be administered, just in case. I understand the logic, but the possibility of contributing to resistant bacteria does not justify such an action to me.
Chronic sinusitis is usually caused by a physical deformation. The term chronic is defined as ongoing for a long time or frequently occurring. If you have a sinus headache that lasts more than a few weeks, or comes back several times in a year, you have chronic sinusitis. It could be that you have a poor immune system or are in a bad environment for sinus health. People with nasal deformities, such as a deviated septum, cleft palette, or nasal polyps, are going to be far more susceptible to problems with their sinuses. I recommend that you make an appointment with an otolaryngologist, also known as ear, nose, and throat specialists. They should be able to help you out.
Over-The-Counter Medication for Sinus Headaches
OTC medications are usually sufficient, but there are other options. I have a coworker who uses a technique called Nasal Saline Irrigation (neti-potting) and swears that it has helped with her sinus congestion problems. Of course, this is the same coworker who kept a whole, unpeeled onion on her desk to ward off the swine flu. I gave the idea of dumping water down my nose about the same seriousness I gave the onion, until I did some research. It seems this is actually quite effective for relieving symptoms associated with sinusitis and nasal congestion. They are very often recommended by otolaryngologists for use by patients who have had surgeries because they help to clear out crusting mucous, allergens, and also help to keep cilia (the hairs in your nose) working properly.
They aren’t hard to use and are seemingly available everywhere, these days. The mixture is one teaspoon of salt in one pint lukewarm water. Tipping your head over a sink, pour it in one nostril and out the other. Some might run into your throat, so be prepared for that awkward feeling of drowning. If done too often, there is a possibility of causing some irritation—don’t get too wild with it. Also, be sure to keep your neti pot clean; otherwise, you’ll just be dumping a bunch of bacteria or fungus into your nose—the opposite intention.
Natural Methods for Getting Rid of Sinus Headaches
Hot showers. The steam will help thin out the mucous in your nose and help to keep the sinuses moist, thereby cutting down on irritation and potential inflammation. Besides, who doesn’t like a good, hot shower when you’re feeling like hell?
Eucalyptus and peppermint. Contain essential oils which are naturally antibiotic. More importantly, they help to clear out mucous when inhaled. You can mix a few leaves or a few drops of extract into some hot water and inhale the steam. Another option is to soak a wash rag in the “tea” and place it over your nose for a few minutes.
Hydration. Liquids are always important whenever you are under the weather. There is little that is more soothing for a sinus headache or sore throat than a nice, warm cup of tea. Find one that contains Vitamin C (or toss a slice or two of lemon in the mug) as it will help to boost your immune system.
Compresses. Alternate warm and cold compresses to relieve sinus pain and sinus pressure. Place a hot towel or washcloth across your sinuses for about three minutes. Then place a cold compress across your sinuses for 30 seconds. Alternate three more times, and repeat the treatment about four times a day.