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Sinus Headaches

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Sinus headaches are caused by inflammation of the sinuses. They can feel similar to migraines but without the accompanying nausea, vomiting and aversion to light.

Symptoms of sinus headache include:

• A throbbing pain in the front of your head
• Pressure in one area of the face or head
• Pain that gets worse when you move your head, particularly if you bend down
• Pain that gets worse in cold temperatures

Most sinus headaches begin during a cold as a result of congestion, so you may also have a blocked nose, sore throat, yellow or green nasal discharge, a mild temperature, or just feel tired and unwell.

Sinus congestion (sinusitis) is caused by a virus such as a cold or the flu. Occasionally it is caused by an allergy like hayfever or another health problem with the nasal passages, such as a tumor or a structural deformity.

If you have cold symptoms, your doctor will be more likely to diagnose a sinus headache rather than a migraine or a tension headache.

Antibiotics May Not Be Effective at Treating Sinusitis!

Antibiotics aren’t always effective at treating sinusitis, the root cause of a sinus headache, because most cases of sinusitis are caused by a virus and viruses don’t respond to antibiotics. However, sometimes retained nasal mucus leads to bacterial infection, hence antibiotic use in treating sinusitis.

This method of treatment is debated, though, as doctor's aren't always sure how to distinguish between a viral and bacterial sinus infection. The Lancet wrote:

'Primary-care physicians continue to overprescribe antibiotics for acute rhinosinusitis because distinction between viral and bacterial sinus infection is difficult. We undertook a meta-analysis of randomised trials based on individual patients' data to assess whether common signs and symptoms can be used to identify a subgroup of patients who benefit from antibiotics...Common clinical signs and symptoms cannot identify patients with rhinosinusitis for whom treatment is clearly justified. Antibiotics are not justified even if a patient reports symptoms for longer than 7—10 days.' (3)

Another study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association looked at 240 adults with acute sinusitis in 58 family practices between 2001-2005. The patients either received amoxicillin and steroid, a placebo antibiotic and steroid, antibiotic and placebo steroid and placebo antibiotic with placebo steroid.

They found that 29 percent of the patients had sinusitis for ten days or more when taking amoxicillin and 33 percent when not taking it. Results for the nasal steroids were the same in both groups (31.4 percent were ill for ten days or longer, whether they used steroid or not).(2)

The researchers concluded:
"Neither an antibiotic nor a topical steroid alone or in combination was effective as a treatment for acute sinusitis in the primary care setting."

So, how do you treat sinusitis instead? The good news is, it usually clears up on its own without treatment so all you should need is rest and good nutrition to aid your recovery.

If sleeping is difficult you can use pillows to prop yourself up at night to aid breathing. Sometimes breathing in boiling salt water can help ease the feeling of congestion (add salt to a bowl of boiling water and try to inhale it).

You can also use menthol or eucalyptus oil on your pillow to help you breathe more easily. If you are asthmatic or have any other health problem, please check with a qualified aromatherapist before using essential oils.

If your sinusitis and sinus headache last ten days or longer and you have a fever, see your doctor as you may require treatment or an alternate diagnosis.


1. Sinus Headache, University of Maryland Medical Center. Web. 21 September 2011.

2. Antibiotics and Topical Nasal Steroid for Treatment of Acute Maxillary Sinusitis, Ian G. Williamson et al, The Journal of the American Medical Association, 2007;298(21):2487-2496. Abstract:

3. Antibiotics for adults with clinically diagnosed acute rhinosinusitis: a meta-analysis of individual patient data, Jim Young et al, The Lancet, Volume 371, Issue 9616, Pages 908 - 914, 15 March 2008. Abstract: http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736%2808%2960...

Joanna is a freelance health writer for The Mother magazine and Suite 101 with a column on infertility, http://infertility.suite101.com/. She is author of the book, 'Breast Milk: A Natural Immunisation,' and co-author of an educational resource on disabled parenting.

She is a mother of five who practised drug-free home birth, delayed cord clamping, full term breast feeding, co-sleeping, home schooling and flexi schooling and is an advocate of raising children on organic food.

Reviewed September 21, 2011
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith

Add a Comment1 Comments

EmpowHER Guest

Sinus infections can really not be much fun. I fly a lot for my job, and usually end up with 2 doozies of sinus infections a year. I do like to treat them naturally, but also know that if left unchecked can potentially cause hearing loss. I have used a couple of products from ElanVeda before I go to antibiotics (last resort), and have found that the aromatherapy works wonders to get immediated relief. I use that in combination with a neti pot and almost everytime can get rid of any issues.

September 25, 2011 - 1:50pm
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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.



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