Ear, Nose, and Throat Headaches: Part 2

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Headaches are among the most common medical complaints, and they can be caused by almost anything. You’ll probably experience more than one in your lifetime — perhaps even several different types. Although most headaches aren’t cause for serious concern, it can be hard not to worry when your headache comes with other symptoms, such as ear, nose, or throat issues.

In the second part of this three-part series, we’ll look at ways in which a headache could be related to nose issues.

Sinus Infections

What you feel as a headache could actually be caused by a problem in your sinuses. Here’s how it happens: the trigeminal nerve, designated cranial nerve V (CN-V), is responsible for transmitting sensations from the sinuses and other parts of the face to the brain. Because this nerve has connections throughout the head and face, pain from one area can easily spread to other areas in a process known as referred pain.

In fact, a sinus headache is a common symptom of sinusitis (sinus infection). When your sinuses become infected and inflamed, they cannot drain properly. This causes a build-up of pressure, which can in turn cause a headache. If your headache is a sinus headache, you should have other symptoms of a sinus infection, such as fever and nasal discharge. The headache itself will be a constant, throbbing pain around your eyes, cheeks, and forehead — often only on one side of the face.

Hay Fever

The technical term for hay fever is rhinitis, and there are two kinds: allergic and non-allergic. Symptoms of rhinitis include an itchy nose, sneezing, and a stuffy or running nose. In the case of allergic rhinitis, they are triggered when your immune system mistakenly identifies a harmless substance (called an allergen) as a threat to your health. Allergens could be anything from pollen to pet dander or even dried skin flakes, which means your hay fever could be seasonal or perennial. About one-third of adults with these symptoms have non-allergic rhinitis, which means the cause is not their immune system’s response to an allergen.

A headache accompanied by these symptoms could be caused by hay fever. In that case, the symptoms associated may be very similar to those of a sinus headache.

Treatments

A mild sinus headache can be treated at home with rest, increased fluid intake, and over-the-counter medications. If your headache returns, get worse, or lasts more than a week, you should see a doctor for further treatment. You may need an antibiotic to get rid of the sinus infection or an antihistamine to help with rhinitis. Corticosteroid sprays or drops can help reduce the swelling. Your doctor might refer you to an ear, nose, and throat specialist for further diagnosis, and in extreme cases, surgery may be needed to drain your sinuses.

Keep in mind that doctors consider true sinus headaches to be rare. Many people who think they have a sinus headache actually suffer from migraines. It is also important to note that the hormones from pregnancy can also trigger both rhinitis (known as hormonal rhinitis) and migraines, along with other unpleasant symptoms. Because treatment of these various issues differs, consulting a doctor is especially important.

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