Solutions range from steam to surgery, but staying hydrated is key.
Sarah Bradley is a freelancer writer from Connecticut, where she lives with her husband and three sons. Her reported features and personal essays on parenting and women’s health have appeared at On Parenting from The Washington Post, Real Simple, Women’s Health, Parents, and O the Oprah Magazine, among others. She is a regular parenting content contributor at Verywell Family and Healthline Parenthood. In her so-called “free time,” Sarah is an amateur baker, homeschooler, and aspiring novelist.
Kashif J. Piracha, MD, FACP, FASN, FNKF, is a practicing physician at Methodist Willowbrook Hospital.
If you’ve ever had a sinus infection, you know all about sinus pressure’s aching, throbbing, stabbing pain.
Unfortunately, sinus infections aren’t the only reason behind nagging sinus pressure—allergies, environmental changes, and even anatomical differences can leave you feeling pain and pressure, Christopher Thompson, MD, an ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialist at Providence Mission Hospital in Mission Viejo, Calif., told Health.
Regardless of what’s causing your sinus pressure and pain, one thing’s for sure: You want it gone. Here’s what you need to know about what causes sinus pressure and seven ways to relieve aches and pains.
What Causes Sinus Pressure?
Pressure in your sinuses is essentially swelling in response to any of three different causes: A pressure change between the air inside your sinuses and the air outside your sinuses (for example, when flying); 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 pressure treatment to the exact cause. Still, the good news is that most available remedies can work to reduce sinus inflammation and swelling regardless of what’s causing it.
Here’s a guide, according to experts, on the best ways to treat sinus pressure so you can start feeling better as soon as possible.
7 Ways To Relieve Sinus Pressure
Steam—whether from a humidifier or a hot shower—can provide some symptomatic comfort, but isn’t a long-term solution, Mas Takashima, MD, chair of Houston Methodist ENT Specialists, told Health.
“Certain areas are moist anyway, and you can cause an overgrowth of mold [which can worsen allergies or swelling],” added Dr. Takashima. But, for people who feel dry air or excessively dry sinuses are contributing to their suffering, steam can be helpful.
Dr. Takashima described your nose as an air filter for your lungs. It filters out particulates, like allergens and irritants. If you are allergic to the particulates trapped in your nose, it will always feel irritated (swollen, congested, and uncomfortable).
Nasal irrigation is a quick way to rinse out those irritants and feel some relief. However, some formulas can provide more lasting effects. There are three main methods, according to Dr. Takashima:
- Saline irrigation: Saline irrigation works excellently as a short-term solution for all sinus problems. It flushes out your nose to eliminate any irritants stuck there. It can also clear nasal blockages of mucus and thin out mucus overall to make breathing much more manageable.
- Steroid irrigation: Mixing saline with a steroid (often budesonide) to get deep into your sinuses allows the steroid to get to the root of the problem and reduce swelling in harder-to-reach sinus cavities. Steroid sprays are the best medication to treat allergies, so steroid irrigation should work well for seasonal allergy sufferers.
- Xylitol irrigation: Using the sugar alcohol xylitol, which has both antibacterial and antiviral effects, xylitol irrigation flushes out sinuses. It draws water out of nasal tissues, so it decongests better than saline irrigation. Xylitol is beneficial in helping to ward off respiratory illnesses and infections generally. Hence, it’s a good irrigation approach for people with chronic sinus issues.
You already know you should be drinking more water, but there’s an additional reason why when it comes to your sinuses.
“The way the nose protects the body is by recognizing irritating things trapped there,” explained Dr. Takashima. “The brain then sends a signal to your body [to] get rid of it, and your body produces mucus to clear out the foreign irritant.”
If you are dehydrated, your mucus will be too thick to help clear out irritants. Instead, mucus will become clogged in your sinuses, causing congestion, pressure, and possibly infection from bacterial growth. So hydrate, hydrate, hydrate.
While decongestant tablets or nasal sprays can effectively reduce sinus pressure and pain, it’s important to remember that these are short-term solutions.
“In an acute infection, a decongestant can be useful. But Afrin [oxymetazoline] can become addicting if used for more than a few days, and oral decongestants used regularly can have cardiovascular effects,” explained Dr. Thompson. “These are targeted for short-term use.”
Also, patients with hypertension shouldn’t use over-the-counter (OTC) decongestant products, which can increase blood pressure. And people who are sensitive to stimulants, like caffeine, might have trouble sleeping when using them, added Dr. Takashima.
Suppose your sinus pressure is causing you severe discomfort. In that case, you can try taking an OTC nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) for pressure and pain relief.
NSAIDs, like Aleve (naproxen) or Advil and Motrin (ibuprofen), typically work better than Tylenol (acetaminophen), said Dr. Takashima. That’s because NSAIDs are designed to reduce swelling and inflammation. And Tylenol might numb the pain, but it won’t actually help with the cause of the pain.
Dr. Takashima strongly recommended nasal steroids for people with allergy-related sinus pressure. If you are not already using an OTC spray (like Flonase, Nasonex, or Nasacort), you might consider trying one.
“The only thing to keep in mind is that these don’t work well if you only use them occasionally,” clarified Dr. Takashima. “You need to use it on a consistent basis.”
Dr. Takashima recommended that people with allergies figure out when their allergies are nasty (during October, for example). Then, pre-medicate before symptoms appear and continue to use a nasal steroid throughout the season to avoid symptoms.
The word “surgery” is daunting. But if you have chronic or recurrent sinusitis, you may consider seeing an ear, nose, and throat specialist to discuss the possible benefits of sinus surgery.
Chronic sinusitis is defined as having sinus symptoms for more than three months. And recurrent sinusitis is defined as greater than four sinusitis episodes in one year.
“Surgery can be helpful in opening up the sinuses to allow better drainage,” explained 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.”
Research has found that success rates of endoscopic sinus surgery (ESS) range from 76% to 97.5%.
A Quick Review
Dr. Thompson noted that facial pain, including pain in your sinuses, can also be related to migraines, neck tension, or bruxism (teeth grinding).
So, if you’re having zero luck remedying pain with traditional sinus treatments, you should talk with your healthcare provider. You may suffer from a condition unrelated to sinus pressure or congestion.
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