Migraine Mix Ups: Sinus Headache & Sinus Migraine


Here’s a shocking statistic: Nearly 36 million people in the United States suffer from migraines and of that 36 million, close to 42% are misdiagnosed as having sinus headaches. It’s no wonder there are hundreds of thousands of people struggling to find relief for their constant pain. They could be trying to treat the wrong type of headache!

To begin with, just because a headache is accompanied by nasal symptoms doesn’t mean should automatically be categorized as a sinus headache. Even though nasal symptoms aren’t mentioned in the migraine diagnostic list of symptoms, patients have been known to experience them in conjunction with migraine attacks. To help identify which type of headache you might be experiencing, consider the following:

Shared symptoms between sinus headaches and sinus migraines

It’s a common misconception that if a few of these symptoms are present, it must be one type of headache or the other. In actuality, it could be either.

  • Facial pain
  • Sinus pressure
  • Nasal congestion
  • Runny nose
  • Teary eyes
  • Weather induced head pain
  • Throbbing head pain
  • Swollen eyelids
  • Episodic symptoms

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Key symptoms of a sinus headache

Below are symptoms that you will only experience if you have a sinus headache, never a sinus migraine.

  • Heavy puss-like nasal discharge
  • Post-nasal drip and sore throat
  • Fever

Key symptoms of a sinus migraine

If you think you may be having a sinus migraine, consider these symptoms first. You will never experience the following with a sinus headache:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Sensitivity to light or photophobia
  • Sensitivity to sound

As you can see, many of the symptoms are the same and the differences are minimal, hence the extreme confusion between the two conditions. The next time you have a severe headache, pay attention to whether or not it is accompanied by a fever and nasal discharge or nausea, vomiting and light or sound sensitivity. These symptoms are the telltale signs that will indicate whether you are experiencing a sinus headache of a sinus migraine. 

To increase your odds of receiving a correct diagnosis, start keeping a log of all symptoms. You’ll want to track when pain starts, what symptoms accompany the pain, how long the pain lasts and most importantly, whether a fever, nausea, vomiting or light/sound sensitivity is present. Determining a pattern or specific trigger(s) to your painful episodes will also help define which condition you may have.

Treatment for Sinus Migraines

Most patients diagnosed with sinus migraines are started on a triptan class of medications. Triptans are prescription strength pain relievers that reduce the swelling and narrowing of blood vessels to diminish pain, usually within two hours. They can be taken in the form of a pill, injection, suppository or nasal spray. Patients prescribed this type of medication are instructed to take the triptan as soon as symptoms develop. The earlier they are taken, the better they seem to work.

Treatment for Sinus Headaches

The objective of sinus headache treatment is to drain the sinuses and reduce inflammation, which will resolve the pain. Salt-water nasal spray, Neti pots and humidifiers are a few of the home remedies patients can try to resolve pain. For more severe cases, over the counter medications designed to decrease inflammation are also available. Sufferers can also try medicated nasal sprays or steroidal nasal sprays; however, they should never be taken for more than 3 days, as rebound inflammation can result. Your sinus headache may also be due to a bacterial infection that must be treated with prescribed antibiotics.

Before making any decisions on your own about which condition you are struggling with, visit your doctor and discuss the type of pain and symptoms you are experiencing. A correct diagnosis is important to selecting the proper course of treatment.

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