I feel every type of pain has its own personality; some aches are dull while others are stabbing sharp. Then, there are those that strike out of nowhere and ones that continue to nag you for days and weeks. When it comes to a sinus headache, I feel the perfect adjectives for it would be distracting and all-absorbing pain.
It is like a nagging boss or mother in law, there on your case all day. You know how in such scenarios, the problem person turns into an all-consuming and all–absorbing pain in the derriere. Well, a sinus headache is no different except for the fact that the pain in this case is literal and in a more northern area of the body.
It is distracting because even after you gulp down a pill and seemingly have the pain under control, the pressure persists. It is like a tiny mucus monster pushing against your forehead, eyes, cheeks and nose, from the inside. It makes me wonder sometimes if Blobby from Hotel Transylvania is not actually a snot monster!
But don’t worry guys! Even if that abomination inside your nose is the size of Mr. Blob and causing every part of your head and face to hurt, Olivia is going to help you exorcise the pesky, little demon.
Hi again, folks! I am so happy to see my regular readers and newcomers here for EO tips and recipes for healthy and natural living. Today, we are going to talk about an oft misdiagnosed and misunderstood problem.
I firmly believe that we are living in an era of extreme stress and that poor bean of yours has enough on its plate even without the sinus headache. I mean, most of us barely have time for pleasure, let alone for pain. So, I totally understand when people run to their medicine cabinet at the mere hint of a headache.
But the question is would you trade the pain for drowsiness, the risk of significant side effects, and a brain in zombie state? If not, let go of those pain pills right now, brew yourself some ginger tea and read Olivia’s Ultimate Guide to Treating Sinus Headaches.
So, What Exactly Is A Sinus Headache?
This is what is called a pressure headache, only this time, the pressure isn’t from stress but is an actual physical factor that causes inflammation and tenderness. If you have read my earlier article on sinus congestion, you will know that mucus buildup is the culprit in case of a sinus headache and several other problems.
For first time readers, here is quick rundown of what happens in your body that eventually leads to a sinus headache. Your sinuses are cavities in your skull that give resonance to your voice and help to keep your nasal tract moist with their secretions.
Tiny tubes remove the mucus secreted by the lining of the sinus cavities into the nose. If something blocks these channels, mucus begins to build up inside these hollows. Now, although the underside of these cavities is bony, the upper side is all soft tissue. So, you can imagine which side bears the brunt of the buildup.
That said, these cavities are quite small which means a lot of mucus equates to a lot of pressure and consequently a lot of pain. Also, they run along the entire length of your face, with one of a pair on each side of your face.
So, the two frontal sinuses are in the forehead area; the two ethmoid sinuses are between the eyes; the maxillary cavities are in the cheeks and the sphenoid sinuses are inside/below the nasal cavity. The blockage may start in one or in a few of them but you can be very sure that the congestion will get to the other cavities, causing widespread tenderness and pain.
Is Your Headache Migraine Or Sinus Related?
A true sinus headache, without several symptoms of sinus congestion and infection accompanying it, is indeed rare. I will cover this in more detail in just a bit. For now, just know that almost 90% of the people who visit a doctor for their sinus headache are diagnosed with a migraine headache.
Why the confusion you wonder? Blame it on the slight overlap of symptoms. For example, a migraine headache may also be accompanied by watery, clear nasal discharge, facial pressure and a feeling of congestion, and this is what leads to the misdiagnosis.
But, you know you have a true sinus headache if you have these symptoms
- Pain and tenderness in the areas directly above and around the sinus cavities.
- Pain at its most intense in the morning due to mucus accumulation through the night.
- Pain in the ears.
- Viscous, green or yellow nasal discharge.
- Sore or itchy throat.
- Feeling of pressure and fullness in the sinus areas.
- Stuffy nose.
- Achy upper jaw/teeth.
- Swelling and redness on the cheeks and around the eyes.
- Pain that gets worse when you bend forward.
- Coughing and post nasal drip when you lie down.
- Symptoms that last for more than 7 days.
- Pain that gets worse in cold damp weather.
- Headache follows other allergy symptoms like sneezing and nasal irritation.
- Pain starts after exposure to allergens.
- Decreased sense of smell and taste.
- Cough and other symptoms of an upper respiratory tract infection.
- Pain starts after a cold or respiratory infection.
Unlike a migraine, sinus headaches are not impacted by exposure to light or sound nor will you experience dizziness and/or nausea. So, if time spent lying in complete darkness helps with the pain, you are probably suffering from a migraine headache.
So What Causes A Sinus Headache?
The headache is a result of sinus congestion and inflammation of the tissue that lines the upper respiratory tract. But the congestion and inflammation can be caused either by an allergic reaction or an infection. In both cases, the tissue that lines the nasal cavity and the upper respiratory tracts swells up and starts to secrete more than the normal amount of mucus.
It’s a classic case of stopping the garbage trucks from collecting the trash while increasing the output of garbage. You know how that is going to end. For the sinuses, it ends with an obstruction of the passageways that drain the mucus and congestion. But the problem does not stop there.
If the mucus is allowed to pool in the sinus cavities, it turns into a breeding ground for microorganisms, usually viruses. The infection simply intensifies the inflammation leading to increased sinus congestion and more severe headaches. In the majority of instances, allergies and infections are responsible for sinus headaches. However, in some cases the blockage is created by abnormal growths in the nasal cavity and even tumors in the sinus cavities.
Other physical factors may also lead to chronic and recurrent sinus headaches and congestion. A deviated septum is usually the cause of such obstructions but an injury to the nose can also cause physical changes that can block sinus drainage.
Since the maxillary sinuses are positioned right above the upper jaw, a dental infection in the upper teeth can also travel upwards to the root of the tooth and from there directly to the sinus cavity. Regardless of what causes the infection and which sinus cavity is involved, inflammation will follow and lead to sinus congestion and headaches.
When Should You See A Doctor For Your Sinus Headache?
To begin with, you need to be absolutely sure that you are dealing with a sinus headache and not a migraine headache, as explained above. The need for an accurate diagnosis alone calls for a doctor’s visit. Even when there is no mistaking that the discomfort is indeed a sinus headache, you should see a doctor if you experience one or more of these symptoms:
- The headache, with or without the other symptoms, lasts for more than 10-15 days.
- You experience spells of dizziness and confusion.
- You have severe breathing trouble.
- Your symptoms worsen even after the use of OTC medication and/or home treatments.
- Your headache does not respond to OTC painkillers.
- The headaches are frequent, last for several hours and are impacting your day to day life.
- Neck pain.
- Significant swelling and redness around the eyes.
- Vision problems.
- Loss of coordination.
My take on this is simple – A sinus headache or any headache that persist for more than 3-4 days needs to be checked by a doctor. Because an infection may be a part of the larger problem, allowing it to progress unabated is simply inviting trouble. Because the critters are at play on the inside, as opposed to a superficial skin wound, and very close to several other important organs, they can cause significant and serious damage.
Let me give you the worst case scenario here. If the germs are allowed to thrive or if the infection is acute or chronic, it can damage the bony underside of the cavities and reach the adjacent tissue and facial structures. The closest to the infection site, in this case, are the eyes.
This is one of the reasons why swelling and pain around the eyes often accompanies sinus trouble. However, if the infection spreads to the eye sockets, you can expect far greater trouble in the form of inflammation of the muscles that control eye movement, decrease in vision and swelling of the eyelids.
Because these cavities are a part of the skull, there is always the risk of the infection reaching the brain. In rare cases, patients are known to develop encephalitis and meningitis that found its start in a sinus headache, congestion and infection.
If the germs breach the bony barrier and reach the tiny blood vessels that serve the sinus cavities, they can cause inflammation of these vessels, which can lead to clotting. So, I don’t mean to scare you but the fact is that a sinus headache is really not a problem that you should ignore.
What Are The Treatment Options For A Sinus Headache?
1. Regular painkillers
For the actual headache, you will simply be sent home with OTC painkillers like naproxen sodium, acetaminophen or ibuprofen. But you cannot take these for more than 10 days, and although available without a prescription, these can react with other medicines and create trouble if you have certain underlying health ailments.
So, use these pills only if you have the go-ahead from your doctor. Even when used under medical supervisions, never forget that these pills have serious and long-term side effects.
These include both nasal sprays like Afrin (oxymetazoline drops) and oral decongestants like Sudafed (pseudoephedrine pills). These and other formulations of the kind are typically available without a prescription and work by controlling the swelling and mucus secretion.
But you cannot use decongestant nasal sprays for more than 3 days and will have to limit the use of oral decongestants to a maximum of 7 days. These drugs can cause rebound congestion if used for longer than the prescribed number of days.
3. Corticosteroid nasal sprays
These are prescribed when non-prescription nasal sprays don’t help to curb the swelling and inflammation. Once again, there is the risk of side effects involved and this is not a long term treatment option. Also, these sprays don’t work if you suffer from chronic or recurrent sinus headaches and congestion.
Oral antihistamines are often prescribed along with corticosteroid shots to control allergies and the inflammation they cause if it is found that these are responsible for the sinus headache.
5. Minimally invasive procedures
Balloon sinusplasty is a new-age procedure that involves the dilation of a balloon inside the sinus cavity. This opens and restructures the sinus passages, resulting in better drainage of the mucus.
Although the procedure is conducted under local anesthesia and has a recuperation time of just 1 day, it does carry the risk of bleeding, further infection, tissue damage, and in rare cases, damage to the optical nerve/functions. This procedure will only work for you if the sphenoid, maxillary or the frontal sinuses are creating a problem.
6. Other sinus surgeries
Both ethmoidectomy and functional endoscopic sinus surgeries in general involve the removal of bone and tissue that are creating an obstruction. The procedure is only considered when all other treatment modalities have failed, and there is a reason for this the guarded approach. The surgery has significant risks including damage to the brain and the optical nerve, leakage of the cerebrospinal fluid and others.
Why Should You Rely On Essential Oils To Solve Your Sinus Problems?
If I were to sum up sinus headaches and sinus troubles in general in one sentence, I’d say that they are attributed to inflammation, allergy and infection. Typically, the trouble starts with an allergy, which leads to inflammation and the dreaded sinus headache and an infection is quick to follow on their heels.
Now, if you notice not one, not two but all of these issues can easily be countered with essential oils. These volatile extracts can, of course, be used to deal with the pain and the tenderness that the inflammation causes. Above all, the bioactives in essential oils are among the most potent anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial agents known to mankind.
Yes, they can easily give modern-day drugs a run for their money. Plus, the fact that you don’t have to worry about kidney/liver damage and addictions when using these natural substances simply adds to their long list of benefits.
Moreover, and this is one property of EOs that I admire a lot, these volatile extracts offer wholesome healing. By this I mean that they have the ability not just to address all the physical aspects of the condition like pain, soreness, swelling, nasal discharge and congestion etc. but also to control the mental and psychological effects of the ailment.
Pain is a powerful stressor and chronic pain is a known cause of depression and anxiety. While relieving physical discomfort, these aromatic extracts also calm the mind and improve focus, positivity as well as energy. Now, compare this with most antihistamines and pain killers that are notorious for sapping energy and inducing drowsiness. With that, I suppose I have laid down a valid foundation for the use of EOs. So, let’s get to the meaty bits.
No, just before we dive deep into the best essential oils, recipes and home remedies, here is some info on the best ways to use essential oils for relief in sinus headaches, congestion and infections.
The Best 8 Essential Oils For Sinus Headache
Yes, I am going to include this oil in one more of my lists, and with good reason. A true multi-tasker in every sense, eucalyptus EO can clean up clogged nasal and sinus passages, relieve inflammation and tone down the pain. I suppose that pretty much covers all sinus related issues.
Often included in cough and cold formulations, this oil has impressive expectorant properties. Plus, it is tough on germs and a powerful mucolytic agent. So, cedarwood EO not only cleans the sinuses and the nasal cavity of accumulated mucus but also kills any bacteria or fungus that may have started colonizing the moist environment.
3. Sweet marjoram
From sinus headaches to nasal congestion and from fever to infection, this warming oil battles them all and more with relative ease. A prized analgesic agent, marjoram oil has been used for years to treat respiratory and sinus problems.
It is a natural expectorant and a potent anti-inflammatory and healing agent. So, it will not only scrub your sinuses clean of the sticky mucus buildup but also treat the inflamed lining and aid in the faster healing of the soft tissue.
It is used in cough syrups, pain balms, lozenges, nasal sprays and just about all types of formulations meant to treat cold and cough. Its popularity is backed by hard science, as the oil has proved its mettle in clinical settings against infections, allergens and inflammation.
Best of all, this cooling oil can wipe away pain in a matter of minutes. So, even when used on its own, it can work wonders for sinus issues. Now, imagine the benefits of mixing it with other complementary EOs.
I have said this before and am happy to say it again, even in the world of EOs, this one is THE terminator of germs. Furthermore, it has superlative antimicrobial properties and the ability to tackle inflammation and pain. Put all of these benefits together and you have one of the best natural treatment options for sinus headaches.
You have probably been using this oil for years without actually giving it a conscious thought. Think about the peculiar aroma of all those pain sprays and lotions. Yes, it comes from wintergreen oil. Extracted from an evergreen shrub and its berries, this oil has long been used for its content of methyl salicylate, which is a natural pain killer. A relaxing agent that relieves asthma, cough, colds, wintergreen EO is effective on almost all types of respiratory issues.
The heat generated by this EO is intense which is why it should be used with extreme discretion. But, when blended in the right ratio, it boasts of unparalleled pain relieving effects. It also has notable anti-inflammatory properties that work on internal and external tissues and even on the bones and the joints. Nutmeg oil is often used in cold rubs and cough syrups because it offers quick relief from congestion.
The humble rhizome has been used for centuries in the treatment of all types of respiratory ailments that involve congestion and the build-up of mucus. The active compound, zingibain, found in ginger EO is a powerful anti-inflammatory agent that is remarkably effective on all types of pain, including migraine and sinus headaches.
Top 7 Essential Oil Recipes For Sinus Headache
1. Scalp massage for sinus headache
According to Ayurveda, sinus headaches are attributed to kapha dosha. This tried and tested scalp massage oil quells the kapha dosha and offers significant relief from the pain, congestion and stress. You will need:
- 60 ml brahmi infused oil (This is not hard to get but if you cannot find it, you can make some of your own by infusing the herb brahmi (bacopa monnieri) in sesame oil. If that is not possible, go for organic sesame seed oil)
- 10 drops each of rosemary, thyme and peppermint EOs
- 3 drops camphor EO
- 1 drop nutmeg oil
Mix the oils and store in a non-transparent, preferably dark glass bottle. Use it as you would any scalp massage oil, but don’t limit the application to the just the head. Rub a small amount over the frontal sinus cavities in the forehead area and some on the bony area behind the ears. Also apply on the soft area that starts just behind your earlobe and runs down the side of your neck.
Spend about 5-10 minutes massaging the scalp with the oil and another 5 minutes on the forehead. Use circular and sideward strokes on the forehead, encouraging drainage towards the nose. After the massage, wrap a hot towel around your head in such a way that it also covers your forehead, right down to the eyebrows if possible.
For the hot towel therapy, use any bath towel soaked in hot water. Wring it tight to remove as much water as you can and then wrap it around your head and forehead. Use a bath cap to hold it in place. Keep it on for 10 minutes or till the towel cools.
You can opt for this treatment approach at any time of the day however it works exceptionally well when used at night. But do take the towel off before you head to bed. The next day, shampoo your hair as usual and you will be done. A quick tip, don’t use a lot of oil, about 1.5 tsp. should be enough to cover all the areas mentioned above. With too much oil on your scalp, there is always the risk of some of it trickling into your peepers and you certainly don’t want that.
Another bit of advice, if your shampoo cannot tackle the slight oiliness, which is great for your hair, or if you can’t tolerate the oily feel, use the L’orpur Rose/Sandalwood soap to wash out the oil and then shampoo and condition as usual.
2. Roller ball blend for the dreaded sinus headache
- 50 ml sesame seed oil (organic and unrefined)
- 5 drops each of wintergreen, eucalyptus and sweet marjoram EOs
- 10 drops peppermint EO
- 6 drops roman chamomile EO
This one is quite easy to make. You simply measure out the EOs into a bottle with a roller ball cap. Pick a bottle that can hold 60 ml. Top the EOs with the carrier oil and replace the cap of the bottle. Roll it in between your palms to mix the oils. If you cannot find a roller bottle that is big enough, store in a regular, dark colored glass bottle and decant as much as required into a smaller, roller ball head bottle.
Use this blend as you would any pain balm. Apply directly with the roller ball on the forehead on the sides of the nose and even on the area where the cheeks meet the nose. Do not use more than 2-3 times a day or continuously for more than 10 days. This blend has a lot of potent EOs, so a little bit does go a long way.
Try not to use more than 1-2 drops or even less at one time. Also, if you are using this blend close to the eyes, make sure you do not get the oil into your peepers. If that does happen, rinse (NOT WITH WATER) with an organic carrier oil and seek medical help at once. As I explained above, the simplest way to avoid such accidents is to use just a drop or two of the blend.
If you want to save up some time and don’t feel like making up your own, you can simply try the popular L’orpur Vapor Balm.
3. Steam inhalation for sinus headache, congestion and infection
- 10 drops each of eucalyptus and peppermint EO
- 5 drops each of rosemary and cedar wood EOs
- 7 drops frankincense EO
Mix the oils and store the blend in a glass bottle (amber/blue). Although you can use simple, boiling water for inhalation, I prefer to add some sea salt or better yet Himalayan pink salt to the boiling water. The right salt used in the right quantity does all sort of great things for the body.
In fact, it is a powerful snot buster, so sinus congestions will not prevail once salt starts acting on them. As soon as the mucus flows out, you can be sure that the headache will flow out with it. So, start with a salad bowl half filled with boiling water. Add 2 tablespoons of salt to it and mix to dissolve the crystals.
Next, add 3-5 drops of the EO blend. Create a tent with a thick towel and your head bent forward on the bowl. Breathe the EO powered steam as deeply as you can. About 10-15 minutes of this treatment and you will feel your headache and heaviness literally lifting away. If you have an acute sinus headache and congestion, steam inhalations 2-3 times a day will be enough to tackle the discomfort. As the pain subsides, reduce the frequency of treatment to once a day.
4. A bath blend that will take the sinus headache and all other pains away!
- 8 drops each of lemon and peppermint EOs
- 5 drops each of clary sage and ginger EOs
- 2 cups Epsom salts
- A tablespoon of milk (dairy or plant)
Mix the EOs with the milk in a small bowl and set aside. Run a hot bath and once the tub is half full add the Epsom salts to it and then pour in the milk-EO mixture. Soak yourself in the tub for 20-30 minutes, inhaling the soothing steam deeply.
5. A hot compress for stubborn sinus headache
- 5 ml carrier oil of your choice
- 5 drops each of thyme and pine EOs
- 4 drops each of ginger and lemongrass EOs
Blend the carrier and the EOs together and store as instructed above. The hot compress can be prepared in 2 ways. You can either go with a bowl of hot water (should feel hot to touch but should not be scalding hot) or you can make your own pain sock/compress using salt crystals.
Yes, I know I am partial to salt and I have already told you why. If working with hot water, fill a bowl half way with it and add 3-4 drops of the blend. Soak a face wash cloth in it , wring it out and then place the hot fabric on your face, such that it covers your forehead, nose and the upper part of your cheeks, basically all the sinus cavities. Once the cloth cools, go for round 2 and continue repeating for 10-15 minutes or till the water cools.
If using a salt sock, you will need about 2 cups of salt (sea or Himalayan pink) and an old pillow case. Heat the salt in in the microwave till it is hot to touch but not hot enough to cause burns. Once you have the salt at the desired temperature, add 5-6 drops of the blend to it and mix using a wooden spoon.
Pour the treated salt into the pillow case and tie with a string to make a pouch. Place it on the forehead, above the eyebrows and work your way down the sides of the nose and to the cheeks. Do not keep the hot compress in one place for too long.
6. A forehead band for the nagging and ever present sinus headache
- 30 ml mustard seed oil (carrier oil not essential oil) or sesame seed oil
- 3 drops each of ginger and eucalyptus EOs
- 2 drops nutmeg
- 5 drops each of lavender and peppermint EOs
Although mustard oil is easily available in most specialty food stores, if you can’t get your hands on it, go with sesame seed oil. As always, mix the oils in a glass bowl and set aside. Use a gauze strip that is long enough to go around your head and can be tied in the back. If you can spare an old head band even better. But, it will have to be washed after use, while you can simply throw the gauze strip away.
Soak the gauze/fabric, just the part that is going to be on the forehead in the blend and then tie it/wear it around your forehead. If you have massage stones at home, this would be a good time to put them to use. Lie on your back with the headband covering the part just above your eyebrows and place the heated stones (once again be careful with the temperature) on the frontal sinus cavities.
The light downward pressure and the oils help to push the accumulated mucus out of the sinuses and offer reprieve from the inflammation and the pain. If you don’t have massage stones, you can use the salt pouch from the above recipe. But don’t treat the salt with the EO blend. This method works exceptionally well after steam inhalation when you have already cleared the nasal blockage.
7. Diffuser blends for sinus headache, pain and stress
A: Day blend
- Sweet orange
B: Night blend
- Lavender (my favorite is Bulgarian Lavender)
- Sandalwood or cedarwood
Preparation and storage as above. To use, add 3-5 drops of each of the above EOs to your diffuser.
Before we get to the home remedies, the L’orpur Natural Nasal & Sinus Spray is a safe, natural, anti-bacterial and multi-purpose spray specially formulated for relief in all types of sinus conditions including sinus headaches, sinus pain, sinus pressure, etc. Why not give it a try!
6 Home Treatment For Sinus Headache
1. Wash the snot away
While naturopaths and doctors never seem to agree on ways to treat sinus headache and congestion, nasal irrigation comes strongly recommended from both sides. You can use a netipot, a nasal bulb or a nasal irrigation bottle.
Add a pinch of salt to the apparatus of choice and fill it with warm distilled or preboiled water (cooled to warm). Use it to flush out the mucus blocks and to keep the soft tissue moist. Saline irrigation also helps to wash away irritants and allergens, so if you suffer from chronic sinus headache, go ahead and use that netipot every day, even in summer.
2. Bromelain works well even on the nasal tissue
You may have heard about this protein in connection with skin care. Yes, it is the very same bromelain that is extracted from pineapple stems and is used to keep signs of skin aging at bay. However, when fighting sinus headaches, you will have to use it orally.
Its ability to deal with swelling and inflammation is well known and professional wrestlers, fighters and boxers have been using it for long to tackle their occupational hazards. That said, bromelain can react with certain medications, so talk to you doctor before using it.
3. Spicy food can do the trick
The ability of pungent spices like black pepper, ginger, mustard, cayenne pepper and horseradish to make your nose run can be used to combat sinus plugs. So, help yourself to some hot curry or spicy soup and feel the sinus congestion melt right out, easing sinus pressure and headache.
4. Hydration always helps
The simplest tip to keep those sinuses and their mucus lining in top shape is to give them enough water to thrive. Get your eight glasses of H2O every day. Enjoy ginger-lemon and chamomile infusion teas. But, stay away from caffeine and alcohol, which can cause dehydration.
5. A humidifier can neutralize the drying effects of the weather
When it is dry and hot outside, you can keep those sinuses moist by using a humidifier. But only use the device in dry months and not when the ambient humidity level is already high. Also, keep the humidity inside at 35-50%, you don’t need to fog out the windows to help your sinuses. One more thing to remember is to clean the humidifier frequently. These devises can quickly turn into a breeding ground for mold and those nasty spores will lead to allergy flare-ups.
6. Hum your way to healthy sinuses
In a study conducted in Sweden, researchers found that humming is fantastic way to regulate the flow of air and nitric oxide into the sinus cavities and channels. The combination of these two greatly reduces the frequency of sinus problems. So, if you suffer from chronic or recurrent sinus headaches, hum your favorite tune for an hour and let your sinuses enjoy the music.
A sinus headache, even by itself, can be taxing on the mind and body. But the worst part is that the pain is just the midpoint of your journey to trouble. A sinus headache will almost always be preceded by sinus congestion and there is a very high risk of it being followed by a sinus infection.
So, if you want to prevent a sinus headache, stop those cavities from getting clogged. If the congestion does creep up on you suddenly and leads to a headache, it is imperative to get aggressive with the problem and stop things right there and then. An infection is something that you certainly don’t want.
Fortunately, with essential oil blends you can deal with all sorts of respiratory and sinus problems, whatever stage they may be at. So, get blending folks, and on that note, here is wishing your noggin and sinuses a lot of happy and healthy days ahead!