A headache in the face, cheeks, forehead, or around the eyes that comes on during a "cold," or when the nose is congested and runny or filled with mucus, is probably a sinus headache: one caused by sinus infection or sinusitis. There are many other causes of headache that can be confused with sinusitis, but they can come and go during the day, whether a sinus headache can persist for days until it is treated with antibiotics. That being said, severe and/or prolonged headaches most definitely require the attention of a physician, no matter what their cause is.
Sinuses are the "air pocket" cavities inside the bones of face and skull. They are lined with the same kind of membranes that line the inside of the nose, and are connected to it by small openings, about the size of a pencil lead.
The function of the sinuses is to produce mucus, which then passes into the nose and washes away dust particles, bacteria, and other pollutants that accumulate there. The mucus then flows into the throat, and is swallowed, with all the pollutants being disposed of in stomach acid. This is a natural bodily function, and it is usually unnoticed.
What Is Sinusitis?
This is a medical term for inflammation or infection of the sinuses. It generally occurs after a prolonged "cold" or flu, or an allergy attack, which cause the membranes to swell and mucus production to increase. The membranes swell so much that they block the passages into the sinus cavities, preventing air and mucus from flowing freely, and creating abnormal pressures inside the sinuses. This creates a pressure-pain in the forehead or face, between and behind the eyes, or in the cheeks and upper teeth, depending on which sinuses are involved.
As the mucus builds up inside the sinuses, it becomes the perfect breeding ground for bacteria. With a "cold" lasting for more than a week, the mucus can turn yellow-green, and develop a bad taste or odor - this shows that a bacterial infection had taken over. At this point, the pressure and pain can become quite severe.
Chronic sinusitis occurs when the sinus opening is blocked for an extended period. In this case, headaches are less prominent, but congestion and unpleasant nasal secretions usually persist. Also, fleshy growths known as polyps can develop as an exaggerated form of inflammatory swelling of the membranes.
Some cases of sinusitis can develop from infections in the upper teeth extending into the sinuses.
Is Sinusitis Dangerous?
Sinusitis is not dangerous by itself. However, having infected mucus dripping down one's throat is not healthy for one's lungs. Those suffering from asthma, bronchitis, or chronic cough may find their symptoms aggravated by sinusitis. Furthermore, an infection in the sinus is very close to the eye and the brain (although cases of a sinus infection expanding to a brain or an eye are extremely rare).
Anyone experiencing sinus pains should see a physician to rule out out other possible causes. Most cases of sinusitis are easily treated with antibiotics, but severe cases may require additional treatment. Chronic sinusitis - especially if it causes polyps to develop - may require surgery.
Preventing Sinus Problems
Anyone can develop a sinus infection, but some people may be more susceptible to them:
- People with allergies. An allergy attack causes swelling in the nasal membranes, which can block the sinus openings.
- People with deformities of the nose that can impair breathing and proper drainage. Examples are a crooked or a broken nose, or a deviated septum (the structure between the nostrils that divides the inside of the nose into right and left sides).
- People who are frequently exposed to infection, especially school teachers and health workers.
- Smokers: tobacco smoke, nicotine, and other pollutants impair the natural resistance to infection.
Whether you belong to any of these groups, there are certain steps you can take to prevent or alleviate sinus problems:
- Manage your allergies. Visit an allergy specialist to find out what causes your allergies - the most common causes are pollen, mold, dust mites, and pet dander. Avoiding these allergens as much as possible, as well as protecting yourself indoors with an air purifier, or outdoors with a face mask will reduce both allergy and sinus symptoms.
- Maintain proper humidity. Low humidity makes mucus thicker and more likely to block sinus openings. Using a humidifier will help you alleviate that.
- Reduce nasal congestion. Nasal irrigation is a time-proven practice that helps reduce congestion and loosen mucus.
- Minimize exposure to infection. Avoid persons with known infections, and practice sanitary health habits when you must be around them (such as hand washing and avoidance of shared towels, napkins, and eating utensils).
- Live a healthy life. Proper diet and plenty of exercise will boost your resistance to infection.