How can I relieve a sinus headache/infection that just won't quit?
February 15, 2015 3:55 PM   Subscribe

I had a minor cold about a week ago that has turned into a sinus infection (I think). The cold was pretty bad for a couple days, but then I was completely fine for 4 days. I'm having some nasal congestion, and swollen lymph nodes, but the worst problem is that I am getting this nasty headache whenever I'm on my feet/trying to do anything. No tiredness, no fever, no aches or chills. I've been getting these awful headaches for 3 or 4 days. I'm off work until Tuesday, but I'm worried that this won't be resolved by then, and am looking for any ideas to stop/lessen these headaches.

Right now my nose is pretty runny, but it's thin and generally clear. My nose is quite red and sore, and the inside is very raw. I have a few swollen lymph nodes around my jaw.

What's happening: Anytime I try to do anything on my feet/moving around for more than about two minutes, my head starts pounding. I'm not doing anything strenuous - just things like putting a couple dishes in the dishwasher, folding a couple pieces of laundry, feeding the cat, etc. I'm taking it super easy otherwise, getting a ton of sleep, but I'm partially stir crazy and partially want to chip away at the disaster my house is turning into. When the pain starts, I immediately stop what I'm doing and go lay down in the dark, with my upper body propped up.

The pain is concentrated in my forehead, temple, and under my eyes. The pain is very intense (8+ out of 10), and at times feels like an icepick is going through my right eye. When this happens, my right eye waters uncontrollably. After 15-20 minutes of no physical activity (I can watch the TV if it's dimmed, use my phone if dimmed, read a book), the headache starts to subside.

What I've been doing/taking to help things:
*Ibuprofen, according to label directions, around the clock
*Pseudophedrine, every 4 hours, during the day
*Couch syrup with guanefesin and dextromorthphan, around the clock
*Tried afrin for a couple days, all it seemed to do was make my nose more dry and irritated
*Drinking tons of fluids
*Getting lots of sleep, always with my head elevated
*Eating relatively healthy, getting my fruits and veggies in.
*Having spicy soups for lunch and dinner (pho, hot and sour soup)
*Taking hot showers - which are lovely, but don't seem to do anything long term
*Using a hot compress on the affected area of my head. Again, feels nice while I'm using it, doesn't help anything afterward.

Luckily I'm off work on Monday, so I have some more time to recuperate. But I'm worried that this won't be resolved by Monday. I was at work for the first day and the headaches made it impossible to get anything done, and trying to cope was exhausting. I'm a temporary worker on the edge of getting a full time position, so I don't have any paid sick leave, and I'd really like to have good attendance. I took a day off on Friday, and a day off the prior week for the initial cold.

What else can I do to help these stop/lessen these headaches? Is it worthwhile to go to the doctor? I'm guessing this is something viral, and I can't take any opiate based medication for (reasons). I'm saying to hell with it in terms of doing any household chores/anything on my feet for the rest of today and tomorrow, but I'm very worried that this won't be over by Tuesday. I know I have probably just have to wait it out.. but I really can't afford (in multiple senses) to miss more work.
posted by Orrorin to Health & Fitness (25 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
You really might want to hit the Minute Clinic and see if you need antibiotics. If this is a sinus infection, it's not likely to just go away soon.

In the meantime, try doing that thing where you put a towel over your head and sit there huffing up steam from a bowl of hot water. I've also heard that orgasms are supposed to be good for clearing up congestion, but I can't say that's worked well for me.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 4:00 PM on February 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

Sinus infections usually don't just decamp on their own, alas. Hie thee to a doctor.
posted by thomas j wise at 4:02 PM on February 15, 2015 [3 favorites]

If it really IS an infection, antibiotics will cure it. There's a really nasty one going around and it's not going to go away on its own. Doctor!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 4:03 PM on February 15, 2015

You might try:

Ibuprofen for the swelling & pan + humidifier + neti pot used properly for your sinuses....

Or check with your doctor.
posted by jbenben at 4:04 PM on February 15, 2015

Is there a reason that antibiotics are not an option?
posted by amro at 4:04 PM on February 15, 2015


During my two sinus infections this winter, I read that while you may have started out with a virus, the bacteria then settle in, and they're what's causing the sinus infection.
posted by feral_goldfish at 4:05 PM on February 15, 2015

Best answer: Agree about going to the doctor or clinic.

Also, my grammie suffered from sinus issues, as did my mom and so do I. One thing that helps, is if you have a partner, or do it yourself:

Lie down, head slightly at an angle (or on the partner's lap), if you have a recliner and are by yourself, use that. So, not flat on your back.

Use your forefingers and/or thumbs to gently massage the lower half of your eye sockets, from next to your nose and outward. Do this for a couple of minutes. Also work around the tops of your eye sockets, and then down on the sides of your nose and your cheeks.

If you have an infection, you need antibiotics, but until you get to the doctor, this might help (temporarily), along with a warm washcloth over your face for a few minutes first.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 4:09 PM on February 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I assumed that since I have clear mucus that it perhaps wasn't a true sinus infection. Or that it was viral? I also forgot to mention that my partner had the same cold -> sinus issues, and hers resolved after 5 or 6 days without antibiotics. I am in no way against antibiotics; I just thought based on her experience and my admittedly quick read of webmd and Wikipedia that this was viral and therefore antibiotics would not be helpful/ a doc wouldn't Rx any. But if this does sound like a case for antibiotics then I'll be at urgent care when they open tomorrow.
posted by Orrorin at 4:18 PM on February 15, 2015

Best answer: You could try nasal irrigation/neti pot. It might seem a little gross, but when I have serious congestion, it really works, both in immediate relief and with getting better. Just do it safely - saline solution and distilled or pre-boiled water.

FDA info
WebMD info
posted by hiker U. at 4:24 PM on February 15, 2015

Response by poster: Also, the pain is not persistent if I'm sitting or lying down. Only if I'm on my feet or active. If I stay sitting down, I feel at about 95% normal. It's just being active that brings on the pain. Can sinus infections present that way? I had a sinus infection as a kid and IIRC the head pain was constant. /threadsit
posted by Orrorin at 4:26 PM on February 15, 2015

For my second infection, the mucus was clear, but they prescribed antibiotics anyway. FWIW. YMMV.

Another reason to run things past an IRL doctor is that headaches can take on a life of their own. Viz.: taking ibuprofen round the clock can trigger rebound headaches, which can become a chronic condition.

Your headache might not even be caused by your sinus infection. For example, maybe it's from analgesic rebound plus stressing about missing work. Or maybe being sick has disrupted your caffeine schedule. There are a lot of unknowns here. Going to urgent care first thing tomorrow sounds smart.
posted by feral_goldfish at 4:32 PM on February 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

Well, if you need antibiotics, you need antibiotics, and yes the pain can come and go. If you have clear mucous, then you may not be at the infection stage, just serious congestion. (Or it's in your ears already but hasn't quite made it to your snot.)

The one thing that jumps out at me is that, by my (years of chronic sinusitis with quarterly sinus infections, and also now when maybe once a year I have annoying congestion) standards, you are WAY overmedicating. Most pseudoephedrine is 12-hour, and I take that no more than 12 out of 24 (generally I take that at night and Mucinex in the day) hours. I do take ibuprofen every 4 hours for swelling, so that the other drugs can work better, and it should control the pain reasonably well.

You have to rest some of those drugs. I find pseudoephedrine completely stops working/starts rebounding after 36 hours if you don't take a break. The guaifenisen/Mucinex is sort of annoying for nighttime use, and can also accelerate a shift to lower-respiratory congestion if you take it and then lay down at length. I sleep sitting up during these periods, because it'll go straight to bronchitis if I don't.
posted by Lyn Never at 4:44 PM on February 15, 2015

For the love of God, go to the doctor and ask them to diagnose you. You very likely have a sinus infection and if you don't get proper treatment for it soon you're going to be saddled with it for a month at least. Stop taking all the stuff you've been taking; you likely need antibiotics.
posted by Hermione Granger at 4:46 PM on February 15, 2015

Best answer: It might not be a sinus infection, but you're MISERABLE -- this is time for a doctor. Even if it's viral, there are things they can do. I had a persistent sinus infection that stuck around through multiple rounds of antibiotics for three years, and what finally got rid of it was 1) an enormous burst/taper dose of prednisone 2) antibiotics and steroids, not taken internally, but delivered via the neti pot. I had tried Flonase previously, but it turns out that the neti pot accesses more of the sinus cavities than the spray does. I did the steroid/abx nasal rinse twice a day for two months, and it was a huge pain in the ass, but it did get rid of it.
posted by KathrynT at 4:48 PM on February 15, 2015

Response by poster: Taking the over the counter mess as written on the label. The pseudophedrine directs every 4 hours. I have taken the ibuprofen twice a day for four days. The tone of some of these answers has really been unhelpful.

I will try head massage, neti potting, and hit the doc tomorrow if I don't see any improvement. Thanks.
posted by Orrorin at 4:57 PM on February 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

My dr gave me steroids and a ZPack (antibiotics) when I moved from flu to sinus infection, felt better for 2 weeks, then sinus infection came roaring back in. Also, I treated myself with Cortisporin Otic for the ears as, in my history, I know ear infections are the cause of sinus woes. My dr willingly called in prescriptions without an office visit but you may need a visit.
posted by Lornalulu at 4:58 PM on February 15, 2015

Best answer: I'm so sorry. Sinus headaches are a special kind of misery. I hope you can see the doctor tomorrow. They will help determine whether you need antibiotics. In the meantime, during my last sinus infection I boiled water and added a bunch of dried lemon balm and then poured that into a big basin and put a towel over my head and breathed in the warm steam. It really helped. The relief was temporary but with a headache like that even an hour or so without it feels like bliss.

Also try to just do as much of the lying in a dark room as you can. Ride it out, tell yourself it's temporary, try to focus on things that make you feel calm and relaxed. If you can enlist someone for a back massage that always helps me when I have headaches. I hope you feel better soon.
posted by sockermom at 5:06 PM on February 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Also it could "just" be a sinus headache and those can be caused by pressure in the sinuses and not necessarily an infection. The way your headache is presenting sounds like all my sinus headaches which I do get sometimes even without an infection proper. So you might "just" have a sinus headache from all that pressure in your head and face.
posted by sockermom at 5:11 PM on February 15, 2015

I had this a few months ago (no major lasting symptoms other than a killer headache after cold), and the idea of a neti pot kind of made me nervous. Instead I got the NeilMed sinus irrigation (just at Walgreens or wherever) bottle and that was a lot less nerve-wracking for me.

If you don't feel some relief the first time, try again a few times spaced an hour apart. It was the third time that really cleared out some gunk I didn't even know was up there and made me feel so much better!

Good luck!
posted by raspberrE at 5:29 PM on February 15, 2015

I have no way of knowing if it's an infection or viral that has turned into an infection. But my Grammie's doctor used to massage her like that (in no way sexual, old country doctor) and it really helped her and so that's what my Mom taught me to do. It's a stroking motion from the bridge of the nose outward, and when I do it to myself, it really helps. I also used to do it with my kids. If you have a partner and you close your eyes, they can do it all over your face and it feels so good.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 5:42 PM on February 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

Rather than hopping in and out of the shower, you can try a wrung out, nearly scalding hot washcloth on your temples and over your eyes and also, for some reason, on the back of your neck.
posted by Jane the Brown at 5:59 PM on February 15, 2015

Surprised no one's heard of the tea tree oil steam bath. I used to get sinus infections, they felt like a bad toothache, and I tried this. Sinus pain went away immediately. It's the same as a steam bath for your head, but add 3-5 drops of the oil to the steaming water. Cover your head with a towel over the bowl or pot and breath in deeply, hold it, repeat.

You may have to do this 2-3 times as the pain will probably return but relief is instantaneous. You can by it at any health food store, Trader Joe's, possibly drug stores carry it now.

Try it tonight, if it doesn't work go to a doctor. BTW, IANAD.
posted by lillian.elmtree at 6:01 PM on February 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

Late to the party here but I wanted to say that this happened to me about two years ago. I tried all of the over the counter stuff including the neti pot and things would get better for a day or two then a relapse. After about a month I went to my doctor who prescribed antibiotics and in two days the thing was gone and gone for good. It really made me wish I had gone to my doctor earlier- the reoccurring infection really sapped a lot of my energy and I felt fuzzy headed a lot of the time and the antibiotics were very effective. Good luck!
posted by bluesky43 at 6:22 PM on February 15, 2015

In the US, you can now get Nasocort steroid nose spray over the counter. It reduces the inflammation inside your nose/sinuses, allowing things to drain. That has always worked better for me for sinus infections than antibiotics.
posted by hydropsyche at 4:30 AM on February 16, 2015

I've had sinus troubles for years and years. Quite unpleasant.

Yes, go to the doctor. Antibiotics can help, though apparently sinus infections are much more commonly viral. Steroid spray can help in the longer term.

Nasal lavage can help as can steam (recently boiled water in a vessel, towel over your head to make a tent, I like it with mint). I have found Tylenol more effective. The worst headaches have required Tylenol with codeine.

There aren't any other treatment options short of surgery or oral steroids that I know of, but obviously you want to confirm the diagnosis with a doctor.
posted by ssg at 5:44 AM on February 16, 2015

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