Can allergies cause headaches?
Clinically reviewed and updated by Rebeca Thomas RN BSN CPHQ Mar 17, 2022 • 8 min
Headaches can ruin your day. More than likely you’ve experienced a headache at least once in your lifetime. Headaches are one of the most common causes of pain, affecting up to 75% of adults worldwide. They may occur in any part of the head and range from mild to severe in pain. While allergies themselves don’t cause headaches, some of the symptoms associated with allergies can trigger headaches. Let’s take a look at how the conditions can be related.
To better understand what a sinus headache is, it’s helpful to know what sinuses are. They are hollow cavities in your skull that are connected and found inside each cheekbone and behind your eyes, the bridge of your nose and in your forehead. The sinuses are lined with a thin membrane called the mucosa, which produces mucus. This mucus helps moisten the air you breathe in. Then, as the air travels through the sinuses to your lungs, the mucus also traps harmful particles, such as dust, pollutants and bacteria, before these can reach your lungs. Normally the mucus then drains out through your nose.
However, buildup of the mucus can occur after a viral upper respiratory infection or cold, for example. The increased amount of mucus can cause your sinuses to swell, blocking the nasal passages and making it difficult to drain the mucus. This then causes pressure to build in your sinus cavities, leaving you with a sinus headache. At times, it’s possible that this mucus buildup develops into a sinus infection that often results in sinus headaches.
Sinus headaches can make your entire face hurt because of all the areas where your sinus cavities are in your head. If you have pain in your forehead, either side of your nose, upper jaw or upper teeth, you may be experiencing a sinus headache.
Migraines are often mistaken for sinus headaches, but migraines tend to be more intense and may be accompanied by nausea, sensitivity to lights, sounds and odors, as well as stomach upset. Also, sinus headaches tend to last several days, whereas migraines most commonly last from a few hours to a day or two.
But what does all that have to do with allergies? One of the common symptoms triggered by the body’s immune system in response to allergens, such as pollen and pet dander, is nasal inflammation. As mentioned above, this inflammation causes the sinuses to swell, and the openings to your nasal passages become blocked, creating that congestion and pressure that leads to a headache.
Allergy headache and sinus headache are terms that are often used interchangeably, mainly because they both involve pressure in your sinuses caused by buildup of mucus. When you have an allergy headache, the location of the pain is generally the same and, again, involves inflammation of the sinus cavities, just as with a sinus headache.
Common allergens that may also trigger an allergy headache include:
- Foods (such as peanuts, eggs, nuts and milk)
Also, if you have seasonal allergies when symptoms only happen during certain times of the year, such as when trees, grass and weeds release pollen, you’re 10 times more likely to suffer from migraines, too.
Treatments to relieve sinus and allergy headaches:
Because headaches are painful and can disrupt your quality of life, you'll want to find a remedy that will relieve your discomfort. The following are treatment options:
Pain relievers: Over-the-counter pain relievers that contain acetaminophen (such as Tylenol) or ibuprofen (such as Advil) may offer short-term relief for sinus headache pain.
Saline nasal sprays: This saltwater spray is available over the counter. It’s a natural remedy that works by moistening your otherwise dry nasal passages. Saline sprays may also loosen mucus if your nose is stuffy, making it easier to drain. Because saline nasal sprays don’t contain medication, you can use these several times a day.
Steroid nasal sprays: These sprays have been proven to be effective in reducing the inflammation and mucus in the nasal passages that often lead to headaches. Some steroid nasal sprays are prescribed by your healthcare provider, while others are available over the counter. They are more effective when used regularly and have been found to provide more relief of nasal discharge and blockage than antihistamines. Side effects are minimal but include local irritation of nasal mucosa and nosebleeds.
Nasal irrigation with a neti pot: These flush the sinuses and thin the mucus that block your nasal passages. This is another natural remedy that uses salt water.
Steam: Inhaling steam two to four times per day (for example, while sitting in the bathroom with the shower running) can help thin mucus.
Decongestants. Available in pill or liquid form, these over-the-counter products may provide some relief by shrinking swollen tissues and blood vessels. Decongestants that contain pseudoephedrine are located behind the pharmacy counter.
Antihistamines. An oral antihistamine reduces allergy symptoms by lowering the effects of your body’s natural chemical histamine, which can make you sneeze and cause watery eyes, a runny nose and congestion.
Water. Staying hydrated by drinking plenty of water will help thin the mucus that might be causing your congestion.
Allergy shots. Sometimes, as a last resort, people who suffer with allergies choose to get allergy shots. These injections desensitize you to the allergy by adding small doses to your system. Allergy shots are administered in a healthcare provider’s office under their supervision in case a serious allergic reaction occurs.
Whenever possible, avoid the allergens that may trigger your symptoms. Removing dust, pet dander and mold from your environment may help. If pollen affects you, check your area’s air pollen count before heading outdoors.
If your symptoms persist and the remedies you’ve tried aren’t helping, talk with your healthcare provider or allergist about other options.
Updated By Rebeca Thomas, RN, BSN, CPHQ, March 2022.