If you’ve ever had a sinus infection, you know what it feels like to have sinus pressure so bad you think your face might actually explode. Luckily, it doesn't; but all the aching, throbbing, and stabbing pain can make you seek out the nearest blanket to hide under indefinitely.
Unfortunately, sinus infections aren't the only reason behind nagging sinus pain—allergies, environmental changes, and even anatomical differences can also leave you feeling pain and pressure, Christopher Thompson, MD, an otolaryngologist at Mission Hospital in Orange County, tells Health.
But regardless of what's causing your sinus pain, one thing's for sure: You want it to go away ASAP. Here, medical experts weigh in on what's going on in your sinuses, and how to make the pain go away—fast.
Where are your sinuses—and what is sinus pressure?
When it comes to sinus pressure, it's essentially swelling in your sinuses in response to three different scenarios: a pressure change between the air inside your sinuses and the air outside your sinuses (like when you fly in an airplane), when irritants invade your sinuses (through allergies or illnesses), or when you have an anatomical issue (like a deviated septum or nasal polyps).
Unfortunately, you can't cater your sinus pain treatments to what's causing it—but the good news is that most available remedies can work to reduce inflammation and swelling in your sinuses regardless of what's causing it. Here's a guide, according to doctors, on the best ways to treat sinus pain so you can start feeling better ASAP.
1. Use some steam—but don't expect a long-term cure.
Steam—whether from a humidifier or a hot shower—can provide some symptomatic comfort, but isn’t really a long-term solution, Mas Takashima, M.D., chair of otolaryngology at Houston Methodist Hospital, tells Health.
“Certain areas are moist anyway and you can cause an overgrowth of mold [which can worsen allergies or swelling],” he explains. But for people who feel dry air or excessively dry sinuses are contributing to their pain, steam can be helpful.
2. Try nasal irrigation.
Dr. Takashima describes your nose as an air filter for your lungs: It filters out particulates, like allergens and irritants, but if you’re allergic to the particulates that get trapped in your nose it will always feel irritated (and swollen, and congested, and uncomfortable).
A quick way to rinse out those irritants? Nasal irrigation—and there are three different types, according to Dr. Takashima:
- Saline irrigation flushes out your nose to eliminate many of the irritants hanging out there. It can also clear nasal blockages of mucus and thin out mucus overall to make breathing much easier. It works great for pretty much all sinus problems.
- Steroid irrigation mixes saline with a topical steroid to really get into the depths of your sinuses. This allows the steroid (often budesonide) to get to the root of the problem and reduce swelling in some of the harder-to-reach cavities. Steroids are the best medication to treat allergies, so this method is great for seasonal sinus sufferers.
- Xylitol irrigation means flushing with sugar alcohol, a method which has antibacterial and antiviral effects. Xylitol draws water out of the nasal tissues and can decongest you better than saline irritation; it’s a good approach for people with chronic sinus issues, especially when they are starting to get sick, because it might help them avoid a serious flare-up.
RELATED: Are Sinus Infections Contagious?
3. Stay hydrated (seriously).
Yeah, yeah, you already know it: You should be drinking more water. But when it comes to your sinuses, there’s a legit reason why: “The way the nose protects the body is by recognizing irritating things trapped there—the brain then sends a signal to your body get rid of it, and your body produces mucus to clear out the foreign irritant,” explains Dr. Takashima.
If you’re dehydrated, though, your mucus will be too thick to help you clear out irritants. Instead, it will get stuck in your sinuses, causing congestion and possibly infection from bacterial growth. So one more time for the people in the back: hydrate, hydrate, hyrdate—then hydrate some more.
4. Use decongestants, but only temporarily.
You can definitely pop some Sudafed tablets or even spritz some Afrin into your nose, but beware: you can’t do this forever.
“In an acute infection, a decongestant can be useful, but Afrin can become addicting if used for more than a few days and oral decongestants used regularly can have cardiovascular effects,” says Dr. Thompson. “These are targeted for short-term use.”
Also, FYI, patients with high blood pressure shouldn’t use these OTC products, and people who are sensitive to stimulants, like caffeine, might have trouble sleeping when using them, per Dr. Takashima.
5. Pop a pain reliever like aspirin or ibuprofen.
If your sinus pressure is causing you serious pain, you can also take an OTC pain reliever. Dr. Takashima says NSAIDs like Aleve or ibuprofen typically work better than Tylenol, because NSAIDs are designed to reduce swelling and inflammation. (Tylenol might numb the pain, but it won’t actually help with the cause of the pain.)
6. Opt for a nasal steroids
Allergy sufferers, this one’s for you: Dr. Takashima strongly recommends nasal steroids for people with allergy-related sinus pressure, so if you’re not already using an OTC spray (like Flonase, Nasonex, or Nasocort), you might want to reconsider.
“The only thing to keep in mind is that these don’t work well if you only use them occasionally...you need to use it on a consistent basis,” he says, recommending that patients figure out when their allergies are bad (like during the month of October, for example), premedicate before symptoms appear, and then keep using it throughout the season to avoid symptoms.
7. Go under the knife for sinus surgery.
The word “surgery” is scary, but if you have chronic sinusitis, you should consider seeing an ear, nose, and throat doctor to ask about sinus surgery. “Surgery can be helpful in opening up the sinuses to allow better drainage,” says Dr. Thompson. “You can use as much saline as you want, but if you need surgery and you’re using saline, you’re only flushing out your nose, not your sinuses.”
Just FYI: Chronic sinusitis is defined as having sinus symptoms for more than three months or having more than three sinus infections per year. A 2004 study published in JAMA Otolaryngology - Head & Neck Surgery found that endoscopic sinus surgery reduced major and minor symptoms of 100 patients with chronic rhinosinusitis who had undergone the procedure one to two years earlier.
One final note: Dr. Thompson says that facial pain, including pain in your sinuses, can also be related to migraines, neck tension, or bruxism, aka grinding your teeth. So if you’re having zero luck remedying your pain with traditional sinus treatments, you should talk to your doctor—he or she may diagnose you with a totally unrelated condition that could bring relief.
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