10 Tips for How to Relieve Sinus Pressure

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Sinuses are our friends. These empty spaces in our faces — and their layer of moist, protective mucus — form part of a vital first line of defense that traps and sweeps out harmful particles and germs. But when head congestion makes our faces feel terrible, or when colds leave us chain-wiping our way through box after box of tissues, sinuses might not feel like such a blessing after all.

The list of conditions that can cause sinus issues runs long and contains everything from bacterial bugs to allergies. But the head-splitting complaint usually arises from an irritation or immune response that sparks swelling in the sinuses or nasal passages, an ailment known as rhinosinusitis. Potential causes and triggers include:


  • colds
  • asthma
  • structural problems
  • certain drugs
  • environmental factors
  • stress
  • hormonal changes
  • enlarged adenoids (aka "the tonsils of the nose")
  • nasal polyps
  • thyroid disorders
  • some types of granulomatosis, a disorder that swells blood vessels.

When congestion comes calling, start by blowing your nose. Hold one nostril closed with your finger while gently blowing through the other into a tissue (blasting away with too much force can blow germs into your ears, triggering earaches) [source: WebMD]. If the gentle blow won't do the trick, try a few of the tips below. One of them is bound to clear out the ducts.

10: Humidify

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If you've ever lived through winter with the furnace cranked up, then you know how much that dries out your skin. Well, the same holds true for the inside of your nose, and dried-out mucus means a stuffed-up snout [source: Doheny]. To ditch the drought, stay hydrated, and to keep your nose-pipes flowing, turn down the heat and turn on a humidifier or vaporizer.

Humidifiers and vaporizers add moisture to the air via different means. Vaporizers work mainly by boiling water, so they tend to run cheaper and delay mold or bacterial buildup. However, their scalding water could pose a hazard in a home with children or pets. Conversely, humidifiers create airborne water vapor from cold water. They use devices such as impellers (rapidly turning disks) and ultrasonics to create a fine mist. To avoid buildup of mold and mildew, you should rinse a humidifier daily, and thoroughly sanitize both humidifiers and vaporizers every one or two weeks using a mix of water, white vinegar and bleach [sources: Air & Water "humidifiers", Air & Water "cleaning"].


Experts disagree as to whether these gadgets can pump enough moisture into the air to do much good, so hedge your bets by keeping yours close to where you sleep. You can also check the air moisture with a hygrometer, which you can pick up for a few bucks at a department store. Aim to keep the moisture level above 30 percent but below 50 percent — your nose's old foes, dust mites and mold, love humidity, too [source: Doheny].

If a humidifier or vaporizer is just not in your budget, gently simmer a pot of water on the stove — while you're awake and keeping a careful eye on it, of course.

9: Atomize

nasal spray
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Sadly, this trick does not involve a cute (but destructive) cartoon alien. The humble saline spray bottle is certainly less cool than Marvin the Martian's weapon of choice, but if it relieves the pounding in your head without destroying the planet in the process, we're guessing you won't mind.

Like most of us, your nasal passages enjoy the wet ocean breeze, and a nasal saline spray is the next best thing to a beach day for your honker. Better still, these over-the-counter salt-water sprays provide non-irritating relief. [source: Mayo Clinic "saline"].


As another layer of defense, you can use saline gel to moisturize in and around your nostrils.

8: Hydrate

man drinking a glass of water
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It's not just about keeping your mouth moist and your kidneys kidney-ing: Taking in fluids lets your body thin out mucus and ease its journey through your sinuses, lessening the chances of booger-based logjams, too [source: Doheny].

Your body is 60 percent water by volume, and just about every activity of life it carries out requires water: moving nutrients; flushing toxins; dampening exposed tissues in the ear, nose and throat; controlling body temperatures, heart rate and blood pressure; and so on [sources: Mayo Clinic, Soong]. Keeping the works running smoothly means replacing the water that you continually exhale, sweat and void. The Institute of Medicine endorses a daily beverage intake of 13 cups (3 liters) for men and 9 cups (2.2 liters) for women [source: Mayo Clinic]. When in doubt, drink enough water to keep your pee colorless [source: Doheny].


Milk and juices hold plenty of water, as do many fruits and vegetables, and coffee and tea contain more than enough water to offset the dehydrating effects of caffeine — although it's still a good idea to add a little extra if you find yourself peeing more after that second cup.

7: De-chlorinate

person swimming in pool

The chloramines produced by chlorine don't just cause that indoor pool at the local YMCA to reek like a chemistry lab; they also irritate nasal passages. So, it's best to swim in a different kind of pool or take a break from water sports until you feel better.

On the other hand, saltwater pools might actually provide some relief. Rather than rely on the chemical chlorine, these systems produce chlorine from salt when water runs through a special electrically charged cell. This process keeps the chlorine level balanced and chloramine levels low [source: Pool Supply World].


If you're stuck with a chlorinated pool on your upcoming vacation, look for one that's well maintained — good ventilation and a proper chemical balance can make a big difference to your sinuses. Ideally, find a spot that diligently enforces its pre-swimming shower policy. Some swimmers complain that perfumes, body sprays and the like can leave a "slick" on the water that irritates nasal linings.

Aside from the chlorine, excess pool water up the nose can irritate your sinuses, too. The other main way to cope with water up the nose involves using nose clips, available at many sporting goods stores, to avoid the up-the-nose part. If all else fails, some of the tips on this list can help you deal with the aftereffects.

6: Prevent

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To paraphrase Ben Franklin, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of mucus. So avoid allergens when you can, wash and sanitize your hands to avoid germs, and get your flu shots unless your health history means you can't.

Of course, sickness isn't the only mucus-maker worth avoiding. Airborne irritants caused by cigarettes or bad air quality can bring just as much nasal nastiness as germs or pollen can. Stay well ventilated when working with cleaning products, and try not to walk behind anyone wearing obnoxious body sprays, irritating perfumes or whatever else aggravates your schnozzle.


As for air quality, experts differ on whether the air-quality boost that duct cleanings might (or might not) provide justifies the expense involved. Still, you should keep your furnace air filters clean or change them regularly. You might also consider airing out your house during pleasant breezy days — but only when allergens are dormant [source: Doheny].

Even if you don't get easily congested, you might find that pet dander vexes your sinuses. If so, try bathing your pets every week, setting up pet-free zones in your house and banning fuzzy loved ones (the nonhuman variety at least) from your bed. The heart wants what it wants, but the nose knows better.

And wear a dust mask when you're cleaning or working outside during pollen season. You may feel self-conscious, but keeping the allergens out of your respiratory system will go a long way toward preventing that allergy-sinus chain-reaction.

5: Steam


We've already discussed how moisture is your sinuses' friend, and how humidifiers and vaporizers can help take the edge off dry air. But now and then you need an approach that is a bit more direct. At such times, a hot, steamy shower or a steam bath schvitz might be just what the otolaryngologist ordered. If you prefer sucking steam fully clothed, then simply put a towel over your head, lean over a pot of warm water and breathe in the healing.

But don't let that word "steam" fool you. The last thing you want to do is to suck scalding vapors into your sensitive sinuses. To avoid blistering your brains, boil the water in advance and take it off the heat before starting your treatment.


Lean over in a comfortable position, use the towel to trap the vapor, and breathe slowly and easily for about 10 minutes. Do this two to four times a day [source: A.D.A.M.]. Plain old water is all you really need, although some steam-suckers like to add aromatic or menthol-containing substances as well. Just bear in mind that additives can backfire if they irritate your nose further, so do a little experimenting first.

4: Get Physical

person getting a shoulder massage
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Sure, your sinuses are in your skull – but there's a lot you can physically do from outside to help them feel better.

  • Sinus massage: If you're prone to sinus headaches, you've probably found yourself instinctively rubbing at your cheekbones, forehead and the bridge of your nose. To help relieve pressure, start from the middle of your forehead and work your way out toward your temples using small circles. Then, do the same around the bridge of your nose, where your glasses or sunglasses usually rest. Gently press your cheekbones with your fingertips, and rub behind your earlobes as well. If some part of your face, skull or scalp feels good to (gently) massage, go for it. Don't be surprised if any of these areas are tender – especially if you've had sinus trouble for a while – but if it's acutely painful, stop massaging and see a doctor.
  • Full-body massage: This one can be a little tricky. If you're trying to soldier on through a monster headache, it's easy for your body to tense itself up in the process. Massage can be a great way to ease that soreness, release tension and just generally feel better – plus it's a chance for a pro to tackle the pressure points associated with your sinuses. But if your sinuses are stuffy, lying with your face in the face cradle can actually make it worse. Make sure your massage therapist knows you're having sinus trouble, and if you feel yourself stopping up, turn your head to the side or readjust so different parts of your face are bearing up your weight. Or, try a chair massage – you'll still be face down, but gravity will be doing your sinuses a favor.
  • Exercise: If your head hurts and your nose is congested, exercise might be the last thing in the world you want to do. But getting your blood and lymph flowing (and getting your breathing rate up) can bring some sinus relief. If you feel too bad to hit the gym, try taking a walk or doing some stretching or yoga – but avoid head-down positions, since bending over when your sinuses hurt isn't very comfortable.


3: Irrigate

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There's nothing like the direct approach, right? Well, short of a pipe snake, using a nasal irrigator or bulb syringe to flush built-up mucus from your nostrils and nasal cavities is about as direct as it gets. The key to this method is to keep both the water and the device sterile to avoid bacteria. You can buy irrigation kits at the store.

Alternatively, try one of those teapot-looking devices called neti pots. Just lean over a sink, cock your head at a rakish 45-degree angle and pour away. Adventure awaits, as does an anatomy lesson/party trick, as the saltwater runs from one nostril to the other via your nasal cavity. It might also run into your throat, so prepare yourself for that possibility [source: Doheny]. Ta-da! Who says you don't know any magic tricks?


2: Elevate

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We all love to breathe (well, maybe not in an elevator full of patchouli oil), but nasal congestion can get in the way, especially as we lie supine in our beds. So consider propping yourself up at bedtime, either on pillows or by raising the head of your bed a couple of inches. If possible, avoid lying down or standing on your head for the balance of the day.

It's a question of blood pressure. When you lie down, the mucus membranes on your turbinates (spongy curled bones that jut into the nasal passages and act as nasal air conditioners) receive more blood and can swell, making breathing difficult [source: Texas Sinus Center].


Your head plumbing flows in a very specific and ingenious way: Within the mucosal layer that blankets your nasal passages, millions of tiny, hairlike cilia move in harmony with one another to move mucus to the rear of the nasal cavity, like a snotty stage dive for particles and germs. Normally, the mucus flows into the nasopharynx, where the mouth and throat come together and where — and we're sorry to break the news if you didn't already know this — you swallow it all day [source: American Rhinologic Society]. But when mucus production grows out of control or sinuses become clogged, you might need some gravitational assist to keep nasal blood flow (and swelling) low.

1: Head to the Drugstore

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Many causes of sinus pressure — like bacterial infections or structural issues with the sinuses themselves — need to be treated medically, either through surgery or prescription medications. So if you have a fever or your sinus problems seem like they never go away, see a doctor. For everything else, there is over-the-counter relief.

Decongestants like SUDAFED® products work to ease the swelling in nasal passages and take the edge off sinus pressure. They are available as pills or liquids for children, and are sometimes combined with other active ingredients to treat other symptoms, like head congestion, sinus pain, sore throat, and chest congestion and cough. Always use as directed, and consult a medical professional before using pills for more than a week. Children under 4 should not use OTC decongestants or cold medicines.

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More Great Links

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