Pressure in Head: Causes, Remedies, and When to Contact a Doctor

Medically Reviewed By Megan Soliman, MD

Pressure in the head is a sensation of tightness, throbbing, or pain affecting the head. It includes the face, scalp, skull, and brain. Pressure in the head may frequently be described as a headache. It can affect all or just a portion of the head. Sinusitis, the common cold, allergies, as well as migraine and tension can cause head pressure or pain. You may also feel pressure in the head with increased pressure inside the skull. However, head pressure does not necessarily mean that you have increased intracranial pressure (ICP).

Seek prompt medical care if you experience pressure in the head that feels different than a headache and does not appear to be due to mild conditions like a cold or allergies.

Call 911 in case of a head injury, unexplained or sudden feeling of pressure in the head, or severe pain.

For infants and children, call 911 for a head injury or such symptoms as vomiting coupled with drowsiness or lethargy, or bulging of the soft spot on top of the head.

This article discusses possible causes of pressure in the head, treatment options, and when to contact a doctor.

What causes pressure in the head?

woman wearing pajamas in chair with her hands behind her head looking out window
AleksandarNakic/Getty Images

A feeling of pressure in the head can be caused by mild to serious conditions.

Allergies

Pressure in the head is not typically associated with allergies but headache is a common symptom.

An allergic reaction can cause the nasal and sinus cavities to swell. This blocks mucus drainage and can lead to pressure buildup. If you experience pressure in the head that coincides with allergies, it is possible you have allergy headaches.

Pressure from allergy headaches may be worse when you lie down. You may feel the pain in your cheekbones, forehead, or behind your eyes and bridge of your nose.

Sinusitis

Infections and allergies are two likely causes of sinusitis. Either of these conditions can increase pressure within the sinus cavities. In the United States, 11.6% Trusted Source Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Governmental authority Go to source of adults have a chronic sinusitis diagnosis. Pressure in the head caused by sinusitis may worsen when bending over, coughing, and lying down.

Colds, COVID-19, and other infections

Symptoms of the common cold and many other upper respiratory infections such as COVID-19 tend to develop gradually. They can include:

In fact, 34–70% of people with symptoms of COVID-19 report a headache. This is according to the European Centre for Disease Control and Prevention.

Pressure in the head and ears may indicate an ear infection or eustachian tube inflammation.

Migraine

Migraine is a neurological condition that can cause intense headaches, often on one side of the head. People may describe them as throbbing or pulsing. Before the onset of a migraine, you may experience other symptoms such as nausea, dizziness, or an aura.

Tension-type headache

Tension-type headaches can feel like a tight band around your head. You may feel pressure on one or both sides of the head, face, or neck. The area of pain may also be tender to touch.

Former names for tension-type headache include:

Increased intracranial pressure

This is a serious condition in which the amount of pressure inside the skull is higher than usual. An increase in cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), which cushions and lubricates the brain and spinal cord, can cause ICP. It can also rise with a change in the brain such as from a brain tumor or injury.

Common symptoms of ICP include:

  • headache
  • blurry vision
  • slow thinking, moving, or talking
  • vomiting
  • weakness
  • sleepiness

Brain tumor

Brain tumors are not common, but in people who have a brain tumor, headache is a common symptom. According to one older study Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source , these tend to be tension-type headaches and accompany other symptoms.

Brain tumor headaches tend to:

  • be steady but possibly worse upon waking
  • worsen with movement
  • not go away with over-the-counter pain relievers
  • occur with new neurological symptoms

Other causes of pressure in the head

These include:

How do you treat pressure in the head?

A combination of home remedies and medications can relieve pressure in the head due to most conditions. Surgery may be necessary to treat ICP or sinusitis. Treatments depend on the cause, severity, and frequency of the problem.

Home remedies and self-care

At-home treatments and remedies vary by the exact cause of the pressure. Remedies may include:

  • resting, including closing your eyes
  • resting in an upright or reclining position to promote mucus drainage
  • avoiding allergens and substances that could bring on or worsen head pain or pressure
  • placing a warm or cool compress on your head, depending on whichever feels better
  • breathing over steam to help break up mucus
  • practicing relaxation techniques

Complementary treatments

If you have headaches, some alternative techniques may complement your existing treatment. These include acupuncture, biofeedback, and massage therapy, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health Trusted Source National Cancer Institute Governmental authority Go to source .

Medications

Medications are an effective treatment for pressure in the head. They include:

  • steroids, administered in the nasal and sinus passages to help with sinusitis
  • pain relievers such as acetaminophen (Tylenol), ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), and naproxen (Aleve, Naprosyn)
  • migraine medications
  • antihistamines
  • antibiotics

Surgical procedures

Surgery or surgical procedures may be necessary for ICP or chronic sinusitis. For instance, a surgeon may need to drain CSF or blood from around the brain. Sinus surgery may be necessary for people with chronic sinusitis if medications are not effective.

When to contact a doctor for head pressure

You should contact a healthcare professional for unexplained, recurring, or severe pressure in the head.

Symptoms that may accompany head pressure can point to a possible cause. Some symptoms should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting.

Seek immediate medical care by calling 911 for:

Read about symptoms you should never ignore with a headache here.

How is the cause of head pressure diagnosed?

Some causes of pressure in the head go away on their own without a diagnosis or treatment. However, evaluating frequent, severe, or chronic episodes of pressure in the head can help you find the right treatment and symptom relief.

To diagnose a possible cause, a healthcare professional will ask you several questions about your symptoms. These may include how often they occur and how long they last.

Your doctor may also examine your nose and throat for signs of inflammation from allergies or infection.

Tests and procedures may include:

  • nasal endoscopy, which allows the doctor to see inside the nasal and sinus passages
  • CT scan of the head
  • spinal tap to measure the CSF pressure

Other frequently asked questions

The following frequently asked questions have been reviewed by Megan Soliman, M.D.

What does a brain tumor headache feel like?

A brain tumor headache may throb but feels different than migraine. Brain tumor headaches may be worse after waking and steadily improve over the next few hours. They can get worse with cough, exercise, or other movement.

What part of your head hurts with COVID-19?

COVID-19 headaches are mainly tension-type headaches, according to a 2022 review Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source . These headaches can feel like a band tightening around the head. The second most common type is migraine, even in people without a history of the condition.

Summary

Pressure in the head is discomfort, pain, tightness, or fullness in the head. It is a description some people may use when referring to a headache. Causes of pressure include allergies, sinusitis, upper respiratory infections, and headache disorders. More serious causes include ICP, brain aneurysm, and brain injury.

You should contact a doctor for pressure in the head that does not go away with self-care. You should also seek medical attention if it is severe, steady, or is accompanied by neurological symptoms.

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Medical Reviewer: Megan Soliman, MD
Last Review Date: 2022 Aug 1
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