Itchy eyes. Runny nose. Scratchy throat. Dull-throbbing headache. Seasonal allergies will soon be in full swing. The timing may be different depending on where you live, but for many of us, a new year kicks off with plenty of tissues and antihistamines. Living with allergy symptoms like nasal congestion is manageable, but a bad sinus headache can land you in bed for days. That’s why you need to know exactly how to manage allergy headaches.
If you’re an allergy sufferer, you know there are lots of types of headache-related pains lurking during allergy season, including:
- sinus headaches
- and migraines
- allergy headaches
While these conditions may have common triggers, the symptoms are different.
Allergy headaches 101
You may have pain on one side of your head and be sensitive to light and sound. In that case, it’s probably a migraine headache. If your discomfort stems from facial pain in your eyes and cheeks, that’s likely a sinus headache. Pain on the top of your head accompanied by allergy symptoms like runny nose, itchy watery eyes and sneezing is likely an allergy headache.
Surprisingly, painful cluster headaches are a different type of headache not triggered by allergens. So if you feel a sharp pain like something is poking you behind your eyes, it’s a good idea to see your doctor for a diagnosis and pain management options.
Another form of a headache that can be triggered by allergies is vertigo. On a personal note, I just experienced vertigo for the first time in my life a few months ago. I went to bed feeling fine and woke up the next morning to a spinning room. It was a horrible sensation. I went to the ER because I didn’t know what was happening, and my diagnosis was vertigo. Luckily I was given medication that eased the dizziness and nausea symptoms, but it took at least three weeks to fully resolve.
Of course, most people reach for over-the-counter pain relievers to immediately alleviate pain. Medications such as acetaminophen (Tylenol), ibuprofen (Advil) and naproxen (Aleve) may help ease your head pain and provide headache relief.
Remember to follow the instructions on the label. Do not use for more than 10 days at a time without consulting with your doctor. If you’re currently taking prescription strength painkillers, make sure you talk with your healthcare team about the proper dosage.
Decongestants and antihistamines
When we talk about how to manage allergy headaches, oral decongestants and antihistamines are certainly at the top of the tip list. These are helpful over-the-counter medications that help to open your blocked sinus cavities by reducing swelling and mucus in your nasal passages.
It can be tricky to figure out when to use what because there are so many options that target similar symptoms. “If your nose is still stuffy and runny despite topical sprays, an oral decongestant may be your medication of choice,” said Nina Shapiro, MD, Director of Pediatric Otolaryngology and Professor of Head and Neck Surgery at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. “These either contain antihistamines (Benadryl, Claritin, Zyrtec, Allegra), or pseudoephedrine (Sudafed).”
A differentiator between the two medications is antihistamines can build up in your blood to protect your from allergens that trigger the release of histamines (chemical allergy reactions). That’s why it’s best to start taking antihistamines a few weeks prior to allergy season.
It’s the same reason allergy sufferers get allergy shots prior to the onset of seasonal allergies like pollen, ragweed, dust mites and mold or allergic rhinitis (hay fever). The body is best protected when the active ingredients have time to work.
If you have trouble finding these options on the shelf or deciding which one is right for you, talk to your local pharmacist. Some over-the-counter decongestants are kept behind the pharmacy counter.
Also, if you are going to take antihistamines, be sure to take a look at the side effects. Some may cause drowsiness.
If you haven’t tried nasal irrigation to ease your allergies woes, you might want to add it to your wellness routine. It’s a safe and effective way to manage allergy headaches and sinus headaches. Nasal irrigation is a homeopathic remedy that has been used for centuries. The idea is rather simple. Using a mild combination of salt and warm water, you literally “rinse” icky things from your nasal passages.
Since your nose hairs act as a filter to keep impurities out of your body, your nose naturally captures germs, pollen, dust and all sorts of tiny pollutants. By rinsing your nose, you can avoid colds and allergies by washing away bacteria and allergens. Plus, nasal irrigation with salt water helps keep the mucous membrane in your nose lubricated and acts as an anti-inflammatory.
Hydrate yourself and your space
When you’re suffering from allergy symptoms, you need to bump up your hydration any way you can. Drinking enough water can keep a sinus headache from getting worse and it keeps your body from getting dehydrated, which can be common side effect from taking decongestants.
In addition to drinking plenty of water, use a cool mist humidifier or vaporizer in your home. These small machines add tiny droplets of water to the air you breath, which helps ease nasal congestion. Relieving congestion eases sinus cavity pressure that can result in allergy headaches or be a potential migraine trigger.
Nasal steroid sprays
Some sufferers swear by allergy treatments such as intranasal corticosteroids or steroid nasal sprays. Popular over-the-counter brands include:
These medications are sprayed directly into the nose, but they don’t provide immediate relief like saline spray or eye drops.
Nasal steroid sprays typically take anywhere from 8-12 hours to 2-3 days to start easing allergy symptoms. Think of them as more of an inhaler or mist of medication. Steroid nasal sprays like Flonase and Nasacort are supposed to be used every day during allergy season. If you’ve never used them before, it’s worth a call to the doctor or a consultation with your pharmacist.
Avoid potential irritants
Easier said than done, but if you’re dealing with allergies, a great way manage your allergy headaches is to avoid potential triggers like perfumes, scented candles, pollution, smoke and certain chemicals. These irritants may not bother you on a daily basis, but during allergy season, you may be hypersensitive to them.
If your headache persists, and you aren’t getting relief from these remedies, be sure to call your doctor immediately. She can help you develop a treatment plan to have you feeling better, and can also provide tips for avoiding headaches in the future.
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This post was updated in December 2018.