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What is a Vacuum Headache?

When taking part in any activity involving a change in altitude, you will need to take precautions to prevent vacuum headaches. Whether you are flying or diving, a vacuum headache can quickly turn an enjoyable vacation or trip into a painful experience.

A vacuum headache occurs when a change in pressure coincides with a stuffed up nose. Vacuum headaches cause the frontal sinuses to close up causing a vacuum effect throughout the rest of the sinus cavity resulting in a great deal of pain.

Symptoms of vacuum headaches include sinus pain, pressure around the eyes and the feeling of a weight being placed on the forehead. Vacuum headaches are also commonly accompanied by a throbbing pain through the temples and sinus cavities, especially the frontal sinuses.

Most commonly, vacuum headaches occur through a mixture of altitude change and nasal congestion, especially during air travel. Whether the nose is plugged from sickness or from dehydration and the dry air of the plane's cabin, this creates the right conditions for a vacuum headache. As the nose clogs up, the sinuses begin to take on oxygen causing a pressure change. As the plane begins to ascend or descend, the change in pressure can create a vacuum inside the sinus cavity. This creates a feeling of pain and weight on the face, especially around the eyes, until the pressure has been stabilized, or the nose has become unplugged. Sometimes, the pain can continue even after the pressure outside has been stabilized. In these cases, you will need to seek further treatment from your doctor.

The most common treatment for vacuum headaches are decongestants, such as Sudafed. If the vacuum headache is sever enough, however, a doctor may also administer a cortisone injection to help open the nose and sinus cavities. Once the nose and sinuses are open again, the pressure releases, causing the headache to subside.

The best way to prevent vacuum headaches is to take the proper precautions to keep your nose clear during altitude-changing activities, such as flying or scuba diving. You can do this either through medication or through ensuring you are getting enough fluids before flying or diving.


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