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Sinus Headache or Migraine? How to Tell the Difference

April 4, 2017

sinus headache or migraineYour head is throbbing. You feel pressure in your face, near your sinuses and in your forehead. Maybe you have some nasal congestion, too. If you’re like most Americans, you probably think you’re dealing with a sinus headache. However, according to the American Migraine Foundation, that pressure and pain you feel is likely a migraine. In fact, 90 percent of self-diagnosed sinus headaches are actually migraines.

Similarities Between Sinus Headaches and Migraines

Though migraines are typically associated with severe — sometimes debilitating — pain, most migraines and sinus headaches share similar symptoms like:

  • Facial pressure
  • An association with seasonal or barometric pressure changes
  • Autonomic nervous system dysfunction

A positive response to treatment for sinus issues can also lead people to think they have a sinus issue instead of a migraine, notes Dr. Paul Matthew at Harvard Health. He explains that patients often seek relief from their headache from their primary care doctor, who after hearing the patient’s symptoms, prescribes antibiotics and steroids. The patient feels better and assumes the treatment helped. But, Matthew notes, steroids can also be an effective migraine treatment.

Is it a Sinus Headache or Migraine?

If the symptoms of the two are so similar, how can you tell if you have a sinus headache or a migraine? It boils down to signs of infection. Facial pressure and congestion don’t a sinus infection make, according to the American Migraine Foundation. In fact, a true “sinus headache” is rare, and usually only the result of a viral or bacterial sinus infection. If you don’t have a fever, yellow or green pus draining from your nose, a change in your ability to smell or foul-smelling breath, you probably have a migraine.

For further insight, ask yourself these three questions:

  • Over the last three months, how disabling have your headaches been?
  • Are you missing work, social functions or school?
  • Are your headaches associated with nausea?
  • Are your headaches associated with sensitivity to light?

If your headaches are often disabling, you experience nausea and sensitivity to light and are triggered by weather changes, stress or hormonal fluctuations, you’re experiencing migraines.

But what about the facial pain and nasal congestion? According to the American Migraine Foundation, some migraines produce sinus symptoms like watery eyes, facial pain and a runny or congested nose. The key difference? The fluid from a migraine-produced runny nose is clear.

If you find you’re frequently disabled by your headaches or have questions about whether you’re experiencing sinus issues or migraines, talk with your doctor.

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