Find out exactly what you're dealing with so you can relieve that sinus pressure headache—fast.

By Ashley Mateo
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Sinus pressure is kind of the worst. There's nothing quite as uncomfortable as the throbbing pain that comes with the build-up of pressure behind your face—especially because it's so hard to know exactly how to deal with it. (Related: How to Tell the Difference Between a Headache vs. Migraine)

But before you can learn how to relieve sinus pressure, you should know what your sinuses are.

"We have four paired sinuses, or air-filled cavities within the skull: the frontal (forehead), maxillary (cheek), ethmoid (between the eyes), and sphenoid (behind the eyes)," says Naveen Bhandarkar, M.D., a specialist in otolaryngology at the University of California, Irvine School of Medicine. "Sinuses are known to lighten the skull, act as shock absorption in the setting of injuries, and affect the quality of your voice."

Inside your sinuses is a thin mucous membrane similar to the one you'd find in your nose. "This membrane produces mucus, which is usually swept away by hair cells (cilia) and drains into the nasal cavity via openings called ostia," says Arti Madhaven, M.D., of Detroit Medical Center Huron Valley-Sinai Hospital. That mucus also filters out particles like dust, dirt, pollutants, and bacteria. (Related: The Step-By-Step Stages of a Cold—Plus How to Recover Fast)

Sinus pressure becomes an issue when there are physical obstacles to the flow of air through your sinuses. If there are too many particles in your sinuses and that mucus can't drain, blockages start to form. And "that backed up mucus is a perfect culture medium for bacterial growth, which triggers an inflammatory response by your immune system," says Dr. Madhaven. "The result is swelling, which can cause facial pain and pressure." That's called sinusitis, and the most common triggers are viral infections, common colds, and allergies.

If that sinusitis goes unaddressed, you could be setting yourself up for acute sinusitis, or a sinus infection. (Anatomical defects like a deviated septum or polyps could also be to blame, but those are much less likely.)

How to Relieve Sinus Pressure

So what do you do to deal with all that pressure? You can use the same treatments whether you're trying to relieve sinus pressure in your face, head, or ears; at the end of the day, it's an inflammatory response.

First, you can manage your symptoms with nasal corticosteroids, some of which can be obtained over-the-counter (like Flonase and Nasacort), says Dr. Madhaven. (Talk to a doc if you're using them long-term, though.)

Also helpful: "Drink plenty of fluids, inhale steam or humidified air, and press warm towels to your face," says Dr. Bhandarkar. You can also use nasal saline rinses and sprays, decongestants, and over-the-counter pain medications such as Tylenol or Ibuprofen, he says.

Alternative treatments such as acupressure and essential oils may also be effective, he adds, but you should definitely be evaluated by a physician if the pressure continues for seven to 10 days, is recurrent, or is chronic. But usually, sinus pressure is due to a virus and will resolve on its own.

Address the *Real* Problem

Make sure you actually get to the real root of the issue. "Many people misinterpret facial pressure to be automatically related to the sinuses because of the location and thus universally term this 'sinus pressure,'" says Dr. Bhandarkar. "Although sinusitis is one cause of pressure, many other conditions, including migraine and allergies, can cause similar symptoms."

Antibiotics, for example, won't help if you're dealing with a virus, and antihistamines are only useful for allergies, so it's important for you to keep track of your symptoms, know your health history, and see a doc if this becomes an ongoing problem.

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