Why Does My Head Hurt When I Cough?

Headaches are never pleasant, but they can become exponentially worse when they appear or worsen when coughing. Coughing on its own can leave a throat raw and sore, and coupling that with a shooting pain in the head can leave you feeling horrible.

Fortunately, while most cases of cough headaches are unpleasant, they are not due to anything serious and will resolve on their own, specifically when the condition causing the cough and/or increased pressure goes away. However, there are some serious conditions that can cause cough headaches, so it is crucial to keep in mind what symptoms accompany these serious conditions and when it is wise to see a doctor.

Why Does My Head Hurt When I Cough?

When you cough or perform similar actions that involve straining of the head, such as sneezing, there is a significant buildup of pressure in the head, which the brain is not meant to hold. In some cases of illness, specifically with congestion, you can feel a buildup of pressure in the head that can cause a mild headache. However, when you cough, the pressure increases exponentially in a very short amount of time, which leads to cough headaches.

A headache can result from many different causes, but they primarily result from signals that interact with the brain, blood vessels, and surrounding nerves. When you have a headache, an unknown mechanism is activating specific nerves that affect certain muscles and blood vessels, sending pain signals to the brain.

When you have a buildup of pressure in the brain, it can cause these pain signals to be sent to the brain, leaving you with a headache.

Different Types of Headaches When Coughing

Cough headaches can be separated into two types: primary and secondary.

Primary cough headaches are those that result from the act of coughing or other similar actions, such as sneezing. These types of headaches often come on suddenly but are overall benign and dissipate on their own.

These cough headaches typically appear while coughing or immediately afterward and are usually felt on both the right and left sides of the head.

The other type of cough headache is secondary cough headaches. These headaches are not as common because they are typically due to underlying health conditions. In comparison, primary headaches can result from less complex conditions, such as a cold, which are much more common.

If you notice a cough headache that primarily affects one area of the head, such as the back, front, right, or left side of the head, this may be a sign of a secondary cough headache due to a condition affecting one area of the brain.

Symptoms of a Headache When Coughing

The symptoms of a cough headache vary by the type of cough headache you are experiencing: either primary or secondary.

With primary cough headaches, you will feel an initial pain that lasts anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes. This pain may feel sharp or stabbing in its initial phase before shifting into a dull, aching pain that persists for a few hours.

In addition to the symptoms of primary headaches, secondary headaches may also have these symptoms:

  • a headache that lasts for a long time
  • dizziness
  • difficulty with balance
  • fainting

Main Causes of Headaches When Coughing

Cough headaches appear primarily due to the condition or illness causing the cough. In the case of primary cough headaches, which most cough headaches are categorized as, it may be:

  • a cold
  • the flu
  • allergies

As for secondary headaches, these result from conditions that are not as common and are typically from an underlying condition, such as:

  • brain tumor
  • hydrocephalus
  • Chari malformation
  • brain aneurysm

How to Prevent a Cough Headache?

Preventing a primary cough headache involves completing actions that give your immune system the best possible chance of avoiding colds and other infections that lead to nasal congestion and/or coughing.

These actions include:

  • receiving your flu shot every year
  • reducing your exposure to those with a cold or the flu
  • washing your hand frequently, especially after being in crowded or public locations

Treatment for Cough Headaches

Various treatment options can help ease the pain of your primary cough headache.

Medicine

Determining the cause of your coughing plays a significant role in what medicine will help ease your cough and thus your cough headaches.

For example, there is no medicine to treat a cold or the flu, but certain medicines can help act as a cough suppressant. If you limit your coughing, you will experience fewer cough headaches.

Along the same lines, if you are coughing due to allergies, taking antihistamines can help reduce your body’s allergic reaction and limit your coughing.

There are also prescription medications that may help lessen primary cough headaches, including:

  • blood pressure medication
  • prescription steroids or anti-inflammatories
  • medications to relax the brain blood vessels
  • diuretics

Talking to a doctor will help determine if any of these medications are needed to treat your primary headaches.

Get Some Rest

The time you spend sleeping is essential for rebuilding your immune system, which can help your body fight whatever conditions are impacting it.

Drink Fluids

Drinking any type of fluid helps to lessen irritation in your throat, which can help reduce coughing. However, drinking warm liquids, in particular, can further soothe a sore throat and adding honey to your beverage can add an extra layer of protection.

Breathe in Steam

Breathing in some steam can help open up the nasal passages, which can help reduce pressure in the sinuses, limiting the likelihood of a cough headache. You can accomplish this by standing over a boiling pot of water or getting into a hot shower and breathing deeply. The steam will help lubricate the sinuses and respiratory pathways, easing irritation.

Secondary Cough Headache Treatment

In comparison to primary cough headaches, secondary cough headaches typically require more extensive procedures for treatment. For example, a brain tumor may require radiation, chemotherapy, surgery, or a combination of these treatments, which the type of tumor will determine.

A brain aneurysm may require surgery, a stent-like implant, or endovascular interventions to repair any damage.

Those with a Chiari malformation may need surgery that involves the surgeon creating more space for the cerebellum, reducing pressure placed on the brain.

When to See a Doctor?

While headaches are a common ailment, cough headaches are less common, so it is best to be diligent in their care.

Be sure to visit a doctor if you are experiencing cough headaches that are new, especially if you do not have any conditions that typically cause a primary cough headache, including allergies or a cold. You will also want to visit a doctor if you have any symptoms associated with secondary cough headaches, have painful cough headaches, have cough headaches that last a long time, or experience blurred or double vision in addition to your cough headaches.

If your cough headaches occur frequently, visiting a doctor can help determine what is contributing to your cough headaches and rule out the more serious causes.

Get Help from an Online Doctor

An online doctor is a helpful resource to determine what is causing your cough headaches without having to leave your house. With an online doctor, such as those found in the DrHouse app, you can describe your accompanying symptoms, and they can help you determine what is causing your cough headache and what can be done to provide you relief.

Using the DrHouse app, you can meet with a doctor in as little as 15 minutes, allowing you to quickly determine the cause of your headache instead of relying solely on speculation. The doctors at DrHouse can also write you a prescription, if needed, allowing you to get the medication you need to ease your symptoms.

Key Takeaways

In most cases, a headache that appears when coughing is due to an immense buildup of pressure in the brain. Cough headaches can be split into two categories: primary and secondary headaches. Primary headaches are due to more common conditions, such as a cold or allergies, and go away on their own. Secondary headaches result from more serious underlying conditions and require medical treatment.

When treating primary cough headaches, the key is to address the illness or condition causing the coughing, as reducing coughing will limit symptoms. Taking medicine, getting rest, drinking fluids (particularly warm), and breathing in steam can help reduce the pressure buildup and prevent coughing.

An online doctor is an excellent resource to determine the cause of the headache and rule out any potentially serious conditions. Online doctors can also write prescriptions as needed to further help treat the condition causing the coughing and provide relief.

Sources

  • Alvarez, R., Ramón, C., & Pascual, J. (2014). Clues in the Differential Diagnosis of Primary vs Secondary Cough, Exercise, and Sexual Headaches. Headache: The Journal Of Head And Face Pain, 54(9), 1560-1562. doi: https://www.doi.org/10.1111/head.12449
  • Bahra, A. (2020). Other primary headaches—thunderclap-, cough-, exertional-, and sexual headache. Journal Of Neurology, 267(5), 1554-1566. doi: https://www.doi.org/10.1007/s00415-020-09728-0
  • Do, T., Remmers, A., Schytz, H., Schankin, C., Nelson, S., & Obermann, M. et al. (2018). Red and orange flags for secondary headaches in clinical practice. Neurology, 92(3), 134-144. doi: https://www.doi.org/10.1212/wnl.0000000000006697
  • Duvall, J., Robertson, C., Cutsforth-Gregory, J., Carr, C., Atkinson, J., & Garza, I. (2019). Headache due to spontaneous spinal cerebrospinal fluid leak secondary to cerebrospinal fluid-venous fistula: Case series. Cephalalgia, 39(14), 1847-1854. doi: https://www.doi.org/10.1177/0333102419881673
  • Hidalgo, E., Dastagirzada, Y., Orillac, C., Kvint, S., North, E., & Bledea, R. et al. (2018). Time to Resolution of Symptoms After Suboccipital Decompression with Duraplasty in Children with Chiari Malformation Type I. World Neurosurgery, 117, e544-e551. doi: https://www.doi.org/10.1016/j.wneu.2018.06.073
  • Head hurts when I cough: Causes, symptoms, and remedies. (2022). Retrieved 1 March 2022, from https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/head-hurts-when-i-cough

DrHouse articles are written by MDs, NPs, nutritionists and other healthcare professionals. The contents of the DrHouse site are for informational purposes only and are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you are experiencing high fever (>103F/39.4C), shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, chest pain, heart palpitations, abnormal bruising, abnormal bleeding, extreme fatigue, dizziness, new weakness or paralysis, difficulty with speech, confusion, extreme pain in any body part, or inability to remain hydrated or keep down fluids or feel you may have any other life-threatening condition, please go to the emergency department or call 911 immediately.

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