Sinus headaches may not be what you think

    submitted by Aykut Unsal, D.O., Thomas Jefferson University

    Almost everyone suffers from headaches at some point in their life. They commonly occur around the temples or on various spots around the head. However, when people experience these symptoms on the face where the sinuses of the forehead or cheeks are located, they are often labeled as “sinus headaches.”

    This can be misdiagnosed as an infection and treated with antibiotics. Any previous misdiagnosis can unfortunately lead patients to believe that their headaches are a result of sinus infections.  However, studies demonstrate that 85% of patients presenting to clinic with facial pain as a main complaint are suffering from migraines, not a sinus infection (aka, sinusitis).

    Facial pain from sinusitis is actually quite rare. Discerning the differences between the conditions can be tricky, even for physicians. However, an understanding of the nuances between them can prevent unnecessary antibiotic use.

    Unlike migraines, sinusitis is associated with nasal symptoms and typically follows a cold. Symptoms include nasal congestion, changes in smell and taste, as well as yellow/green nasal mucous. Patients with sinusitis can mostly function, whereas migraines can be quite debilitating with pain worsening on physical exertion or bending over.

    Any type of throbbing pain and sensitivity to bright lights are also indicative of a primary headache. Response to treatments like antibiotics and decongestants can also confuse the diagnosis.

    Some patients will improve on these medications, as they help relieve the inflammation in the nose and sinuses caused by the headache. Other times, patients naturally feel better while on these medications despite its action within the body, called a placebo effect.

    If you feel that you are suffering from chronic headaches or sinus infections, it is important to undergo a thorough examination by an ENT to help identify the cause, as proper treatment can significantly improve your quality of life.

    Aykut Unsal, D.O., is a fellowship trained nose and sinus surgeon at Thomas Jefferson University. He practices alongside Dr. Elizabeth Cottrill, Dr. Gregory Epps, and Dr. Paul Johnson in their Yardley and Torresdale offices.

    For an appointment, call 1-800-JEFF-NOW or visit for more information.

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