Itchy eyes. Runny nose. Scratchy throat. Dull-throbbing headache. Seasonal allergies will soon be in full swing. The timing may be different depending on where you live, but for many of us, a new year kicks off with plenty of tissues and antihistamines. Living with allergy symptoms like nasal congestion is manageable, but a bad sinus headache can land you in bed for days. That’s why you need to know exactly how to manage allergy headaches.
If you’re an allergy sufferer, you know there are lots of types of headache-related pains lurking during allergy season, including:
- sinus headaches
- and migraines
- allergy headaches
While these conditions may have common triggers, the symptoms are different.
Allergy headaches 101
You may have pain on one side of your head and be sensitive to light and sound. In that case, it’s probably a migraine headache. If your discomfort stems from facial pain in your eyes and cheeks, that’s likely a sinus headache. Pain on the top of your head accompanied by allergy symptoms like runny nose, itchy watery eyes and sneezing is likely an allergy headache.
Surprisingly, painful cluster headaches are a different type of headache not triggered by allergens. So if you feel a sharp pain like something is poking you behind your eyes, it’s a good idea to see your doctor for a diagnosis and pain management options.
Another form of a headache that can be triggered by allergies is vertigo. On a personal note, I just experienced vertigo for the first time in my life a few months ago. I went to bed feeling fine and woke up the next morning to a spinning room. It was a horrible sensation. I went to the ER because I didn’t know what was happening, and my diagnosis was vertigo. Luckily I was given medication that eased the dizziness and nausea symptoms, but it took at least three weeks to fully resolve.
Of course, most people reach for over-the-counter pain relievers to immediately alleviate pain. Medications such as acetaminophen (Tylenol), ibuprofen (Advil) and naproxen (Aleve) may help ease your head pain and provide headache relief.
Remember to follow the instructions on the label. Do not use for more than 10 days at a time without consulting with your doctor. If you’re currently taking prescription strength painkillers, make sure you talk with your healthcare team about the proper dosage.
Decongestants and antihistamines
When we talk about how to manage allergy headaches, oral decongestants and antihistamines are certainly at the top of the tip list. These are helpful over-the-counter medications that help to open your blocked sinus cavities by reducing swelling and mucus in your nasal passages.
It can be tricky to figure out when to use what because there are so many options that target similar symptoms. “If your nose is still stuffy and runny despite topical sprays, an oral decongestant may be your medication of choice,” said Nina Shapiro, MD, Director of Pediatric Otolaryngology and Professor of Head and Neck Surgery at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. “These either contain antihistamines (Benadryl, Claritin, Zyrtec, Allegra), or pseudoephedrine (Sudafed).”
A differentiator between the two medications is antihistamines can build up in your blood to protect your from allergens that trigger the release of histamines (chemical allergy reactions). That’s why it’s best to start taking antihistamines a few weeks prior to allergy season.
It’s the same reason allergy sufferers get allergy shots prior to the onset of seasonal allergies like pollen, ragweed, dust mites and mold or allergic rhinitis (hay fever). The body is best protected when the active ingredients have time to work.
If you have trouble finding these options on the shelf or deciding which one is right for you, talk to your local pharmacist. Some over-the-counter decongestants are kept behind the pharmacy counter.