What does an allergy headache feel like?

Almost 40% of adults suffer from seasonal allergies, which can cause an allergy headache. Learn what an allergy headache feels like and how to relieve your symptoms.

What is an allergy headache? | What does an allergy headache feel like? | Triggers | Relief | When to see a doctor

Seasonal allergies can slow you down and leave you feeling under the weather. In fact, you may be “under the pollen.” Seasonal allergies are a group of symptoms that occur due to your body’s response to airborne allergens. These can include pollen, mold, pet dander, and dust mites. Your immune system stimulates a response that manifests as sneezing, runny nose, and itching eyes. Unfortunately, allergies can also be a pain in your head, leading to an allergy headache.

The terms allergy headache and sinus headache are sometimes used interchangeably. Allergy symptoms can lead to both sinus headaches and migraine headaches. Sinus headaches start when the sinus cavities become blocked and can not drain. This is known as nasal congestion.  Allergy headaches don’t just happen to a few people, either. It is estimated that approximately 40% of adults suffer from allergies, and 10-30% of children do. This is a significant number of patients who could suffer from a subsequent allergy headache if not treated. 

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If you have ever suffered from any type of headache, then you are aware of how much they can affect your daily living, especially if they persist for a long time. We’ll discuss more about allergy headaches here, as well as your treatment and prevention options.

What is an allergy headache?

An allergy headache is a headache that results from allergy symptoms. This is often referred to as a sinus headache. As your immune system is responding to allergens, one of the symptoms that occurs is the production of phlegm or mucus. For many of us, this leads to a persistently runny nose. Unfortunately though, the nasal passages can also swell at the same time this mucus is produced, which causes a blockage of the sinus cavity and traps phlegm inside. The increase of fluid in the sinus cavity causes a pressure buildup. This may lead you to experience your pain, or headache, in the cheekbone where the sinus cavity is, behind the eyes, and into the forehead.

You may be wondering how you would know the difference from another type of headache you may get. Allergies can cause a migraine headache. Migraines may cause light sensitivity or nausea, and some of them are accompanied by an “aura.” Tension headaches or cluster headaches are not related to allergies. The pain is typically felt in a different region of the head, and there is no presence of sinus congestion and pressure. It’s important to be able to differentiate other types of headaches because different headaches have different preferred treatment options, and you want to make sure you are choosing an effective therapy.

RELATED: Is it allergies or a sinus infection?

What does an allergy headache feel like?

The pain from an allergy or sinus headache is typically concentrated around the blocked sinus cavity. It is often dull, but can be intense for some patients depending on the blockage and duration. Typically the area above the sinuses, near the cheekbone, is tender to the touch. You may even notice that your teeth or gums are tender as well, as all of these systems are so closely connected in the center of your face. You could have visible redness over your cheekbones. The pain can extend behind your eyeballs and up to your forehead.

Allergy headaches tend to be worse in the morning after you have been laying flat. Once you have been upright and the sinus cavity can at least partially drain, you typically will experience some relief. Allergy headaches can last as long as your allergy symptoms go inadequately treated. Taking steps to decrease phlegm production and other allergy symptoms can shorten the allergy headache duration.

Allergy headache triggers

Allergens come in many shapes and types. No matter which allergen is your trigger, they all lead to a similar end result: swelling of the nasal passage which prevents the sinus cavity from draining. This leads to a pressure build up and a typically dull, persistent pain in the center of your face and moving up to your forehead. 

Some common allergy headache triggers include:

  • Plant pollen
  • Dust
  • Pet dander 
  • Mold
  • Food products
  • “Hay fever”

One of the most obvious ways to prevent an allergy headache is to avoid the triggers known to cause yours. Limiting outdoor exposure during the season when your triggering pollen is highest can decrease your reactions. If you must be outside, consider wearing a filtered mask that covers your nose and mouth. Keep your air filters in your home and car refreshed on a regular basis. If pet dander is your trigger, you will need to limit your exposure to pets and limit your pet’s time outside as well.

Respecting food allergies of yourself and others around you is very important. For some, food allergies can be life-threatening and close off the airways. If you suspect a food allergy, your doctor can test you to confirm, and you will be able to avoid foods that are triggers of your allergies.

Allergy headache relief

The best defense against an allergy headache is to stop it from happening. Avoiding your triggers for allergies will stop a headache before it can start. Unfortunately, not all triggers can be avoided all the time.

An allergy response is carried out by a few molecules in your body, the most common being histamine. You have histamine receptors throughout your body, and activity at these receptors increases dramatically during an allergic reaction. Antihistamines are a class of drugs that block activity at the histamine receptor and therefore limit or reverse the allergic reaction symptoms, including phlegm production and nasal passage swelling. 

Over-the-counter medications can be very effective for allergy headaches. There are fast-acting antihistamines, such as Benadryl (diphenhydramine), which work quickly and are very effective at reversing symptoms. The downside is that Benadryl is short-acting, and the effects only last for four to six hours. Benadryl also causes noticeable drowsiness, which may be a problem during the daytime hours.

Long-acting, non-drowsy antihistamines such as Claritin (loratadine) and Zyrtec (cetirizine) provide longer-lasting relief without drowsiness, but they don’t work as quickly and therefore, symptom relief may be delayed.

In addition to antihistamines, you may need to pair a decongestant medication to relieve some of the pressure in the sinus cavity and get faster relief. This is especially true if you are significantly congested and feel that your nasal passages are blocked. Sudafed (pseudoephedrine) is the most common oral decongestant. Nasal spray decongestants such as Afrin (oxymetazoline) are effective and safe for short-term use. When your allergies are really severe, you may require the addition of a corticosteroid to your therapy to calm your body’s immune response. There are also nasal spray steroids like Flonase (fluticasone) for local effect as well as systemic prescription-only oral steroids for severe symptoms that your doctor can prescribe.

In addition to treating allergies at their source, you may also have to take a short-acting Tylenol (acetaminophen) product or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) like Advil (ibuprofen) to treat the immediate pain associated with your allergy headache.

Other relief tactics to consider are applying a warm, moist towel to your face or sitting in a steamy room like the bathroom. This can help relieve sinus pressure. Saline sinus flushes can physically remove phlegm from the cavity and relieve pressure. Staying hydrated is the most important part of staying healthy at all times. Being well-hydrated will keep the mucus thin and make it easier to clear from the sinus cavity.

When to see a doctor

If you only get an occasional allergy or sinus headache and find relief easily with these tactics, you may not need to rush in to see a doctor. But it is worth mentioning at your annual appointment that you get occasional allergy headaches.

If you find that the frequency of these headaches is increasing, and standard treatment and management are not providing relief, it is time to see your healthcare provider. Allergy headaches should not be constant. They will come and go with allergens, and you should experience relief after allergy treatment. You may be referred to an allergist to test for specific triggers and evaluate more specific immunotherapy, which may help modulate your immune response. 

Sometimes a headache may not be allergies at all. It could be dehydration, stress, or lack of sleep. It could also be something more serious, like a blood clot or stroke. If you have used standard treatment and are not getting any relief, or it is getting worse, you should immediately see a healthcare provider for your headache. Only your healthcare provider can provide an accurate diagnosis, and you should not wait if your headache has been persistent without relief.


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