Have you or someone you know ever uttered the words “It’s just a headache”? Did you know that there are actually more than 150 different types of headaches? And because it’s estimated that about half of people with migraine never get a diagnosis, many people aren’t getting the right treatment for their symptoms.
Struggling to tell the difference between a migraine and a sinus headache? You’re not the only one. Migraine headaches and sinus headaches stem from headache disorders that carry similar symptoms, including pain in the head (particularly the forehead), itchy or watery eyes, nasal congestion, and facial pressure over the sinuses. Because the two illnesses seem to be the same, it can be hard to distinguish the type of treatment you need or where you should go for medical help.
In order to differentiate a sinus issue, headache, and migraine more clearly, we have created a comprehensive examination of all three conditions.
Misdiagnosing a headache
If you have a runny nose, watery eyes, and your head hurts, you might assume that you have a sinus headache. But studies show that about 90% of self-diagnosed sinus headaches are actually migraine.
There’s a belief that sinus headache is a common illness. The marketing of over-the-counter medications designed to treat these symptoms reinforces this belief. However, a sinus headache is not as common as you might think.
How can you tell if you have a migraine or sinus headache and get the treatment you need? Let’s start by defining migraine and sinus headaches.
A headache can be one of the symptoms of sinusitis, or inflammation and swelling of the sinuses, possibly caused by an infection or allergy. Sinusitis symptoms can also include facial pain and pressure, nasal drainage, nasal or facial congestion, postnasal drip, cough, and sore throat.
Migraine is not just a bad headache. It’s a disabling neurological disease with different symptoms and different treatment approaches compared to other headache disorders. The American Migraine Foundation estimates that at least 39 million Americans live with migraine. However, many people do not get an accurate diagnosis or the treatment they need, so the actual number is probably higher.
How can I tell if it’s a migraine or a sinus headache?
Here are some key factors to consider when trying to figure out if you are experiencing a sinus headache vs. a migraine.
One of the most distinguishing features of sinus headache vs. migraine is where the pain is felt. Sinus headaches are typically felt in the face, where the sinuses are, whereas migraines cause pain in other parts of the head, such as the temples, forehead, or the back of the head. Migraines are often felt on only one side of the head, while sinus headaches can be felt on both sides of the face.
As mentioned before, sinus and migraine symptoms can be similar to one another. However, there are certain symptoms that are unique to each disorder.
If a person has a migraine, they may experience the following:
- Throbbing pain in certain areas of the head
- Sensitivity to sound or light
The main triggers of migraines are not fully understood. However, factors such as genetics and environmental conditions are known to play a vital role. In addition, imbalances in the brain and variations in the brainstem and their interactions with major pain pathways can trigger migraines. Skipping meals or fasting can also be a cause of migraine headaches.
If a person has a sinus headache, they may experience the following:
- Pain and pressure in the forehead, cheekbones, or bridge of the nose
- Face swelling
- A full feeling in the ears
- Congestion and/or a runny nose (it is very unlikely to have a sinus headache without congestion)
- Yellow mucus
A sinus headache is caused by built-up pressure in the sinus cavities when the nasal passages can no longer drain properly. This inflammation is known as sinusitis and can be triggered by allergies or other types of infections. Some people have chronic sinusitis, which means that their sinuses are constantly inflamed.
How long do sinus headaches last? Sinus headaches can last up to two weeks or more, depending on the severity of your sinus infection. Although some sinus headaches can go away on their own, it’s best to treat your sinus infection so that complications don’t form, such as loss of smell.
Migraine headaches, on the other hand, are much shorter, typically lasting for 2-72 hours without treatment. However, the pain associated with migraines can be so severe that it hinders you from performing daily activities.
Can sinus pressure cause a migraine? Not necessarily. The two types of headaches are independent of each other and have unique treatment options that should not be mixed and matched. Treating a sinus headache with migraine medication can only worsen your symptoms and vice versa, so be sure to visit a medical professional to ensure you get the correct treatment.
How do you get rid of a sinus or migraine headache? Treatment for migraines should be discussed with your doctor and may include a migraine preventative plan and prescriptions to lessen pain and reduce nausea.
For how to get rid of a sinus headache, however, you have a few options for treatment. At-home remedies can include:
- Taking over-the-counter pain relievers to manage pain.
- Using a humidifier or nasal spray to open up the nasal passageways.
- Using a warm compress on your face to soothe the pressure.
Although these home remedies can be effective, we encourage anyone experiencing sinus problems to see a sinus specialist to get to the root of your sinus problems. Your physician will usually prescribe antibiotics, antihistamines, and decongestants to lessen the symptoms. Occasionally, if needed, corticosteroids are also used to decrease inflammation.
Whether you’re dealing with a sinus headache or a migraine, you’re likely experiencing a lot of discomfort. When unsure of your symptoms or what’s causing them, it’s always best to get a medical professional’s opinion. It’s important to understand the underlying cause of your headaches so that proper treatment can take place.