Is Your Self-Diagnosed Sinus Headache Really Just a Horrible Migraine?

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Sinus headaches are seriously misunderstood. Case in point: according to the American Migraine Foundation, a whopping 90 percent of self-diagnosed sinus headaches are actually migraines.

That's likely because both migraines and sinus headaches have shockingly similar symptoms, like excruciating, head-splitting pressure and pain across the forehead, eyebrows, cheeks, and upper teeth, as well as congestion and increased sensitivity to light. However, a "true sinus headache" is accompanied by one distinguishing characteristic.

"Sinus headaches are only considered 'true' sinus headaches in the presence of a sinus infection characterized by fever, purulent phlegm, and response to an antibiotic," Dr. Molly Rossknecht, a neurologist and medical advisor for WeatherX, said.

After being examined by a doctor or a specialist like an otolaryngologist (ear, nose, and throat physician), Dr. Rossknecht says the patient would be prescribed antibiotics and would typically find relief from nasal decongestants and antihistamines. If there's no infection, you could just be dealing with a migraine with associated sinus symptoms.

"Studies have been done showing that sinus symptoms including facial pain, nasal and sinus congestion, watery eyes, and pain with leaning forward are most often migraine attacks with associated sinus symptoms," Dr. Rossknecht explained. "If a disabling headache, nausea, and sensitivity to light are present in addition to the sinus symptoms, then the diagnosis of a migraine headache is likely."

These sinus-related migraines are usually triggered by weather changes, or drops in barometric pressure (the measurement of air pressure in the atmosphere).

"A drop in barometric pressure can happen when a storm is approaching, and a change of as little as 0.20 millibars impacts the pressure in the sinuses and ear canals," Dr. Rossknecht noted. "This pressure difference between the outside air and the air in your sinuses and ear canals creates an imbalance that is thought to trigger a migraine in some migraine sufferers."

However, Dr. Rossknecht says migraines can also be triggered by changes in sleep patterns, skipping meals, dehydration, stress, allergies, and hormonal changes.

If you do have a migraine, relief can come in the form of prescriptions or over-the-counter medications, though you should always talk to your doctor about what method best treats your symptoms. For headaches triggered by weather changes, Dr. Rossknecht suggests ear plugs, like WeatherX Pressure Filtering Earplugs ($12), that minimize the change in the barometric pressure between the external environment and the external ear canal.