Everyone coughs from time to time, either from an irritated throat, or during a cold. Occasionally, coughing can cause a headache, or an uncomfortable pressure in the head. ENTs have defined two kinds of cough headaches, called primary and secondary cough headaches.

Symptoms of Head Pain Caused by Coughs

Primary cough headaches are most likely to affect those over the age of 40, and they usually last anywhere from one to thirty minutes. In rare cases, a primary headache can last one or two hours. A primary headache is characterized by:

  • Pain on one or both sides of the head
  • A sharp pain
  • Head pain that starts very abruptly, during or immediately after coughing
  • After the initial head pain, a dull ache may persist for a few more minutes

Secondary cough headaches are more severe than primary cough headaches. A secondary cough headache usually last far longer, and can often still be felt several weeks after it began. The symptoms of a secondary cough headache may include:

  • High intensity or excruciating pain
  • Dizziness, unsteadiness, or feeling faint
  • Varied duration of headache
  • Location of the headaches change

Primary vs. Secondary Cough Headaches

Primary cough headaches are temporary headaches, and won’t cause any lasting effects, while secondary cough headaches last longer, and are considered serious since they usually indicate an underlying issue in the brain.

Primary cough headaches may cause a headache on only one side of the head, or may affect the whole head. It’s believed that primary cough headaches are caused by the sudden increase in pressure applied to the abdomen during a cough. This is the same pressure that may cause a headache after laughing, sneezing, or an intense workout.

A secondary cough headache, on the other hand, is usually caused by an underlying health condition, such as a brain disorder, tumor, or skull abnormality, that’s been exacerbated by the cough. This headache will often change in intensity when you change position, such as when you lay down or stand up.

The most common cause of a secondary cough headache is a Chiari type I malformation, or abnormality in the skull structure where the lower part of the brain may emerge from the base of the skull and rest in the upper spinal area. Other causes of a secondary cough headache include brain tumors, fluid in the brain, or low cerebrospinal fluid.

Treating Head Pain & Coughs

If you’ve been experiencing head pain and coughs, start by managing or reducing the cough to eliminate the headache. A cold, sinus infection, or allergies could be causing the cough, so focus on recovering from the cold and clearing the sinuses. To reduce the cough, you can:

  • Spend more time resting.
  • Stay hydrated.
  • Drink hot beverages such as tea or ginger with honey.
  • Wash your hands thoroughly after coughing.
  • Take ibuprofen or an over the counter pain killer to manage pain and headaches.

When to Visit an ENT

Primary cough headaches are benign, and the pain will ease in a few minutes. However, if you have long-lasting or very severe symptoms, you’ll need to visit your doctor or ENT. Have you been experiencing frequent headaches after coughing? If you have sudden head pain and coughs, dizziness, fever, extreme pain, or unexplained weight loss, you should visit a medical professional as soon as possible.

Your doctor or ENT will look for the cause of the head pain, and perform the necessary medical intervention. This could be medication to treat an underlying health condition, such as bronchitis or pneumonia. They’ll also determine if you have a secondary cough headache, and suggest more aggressive treatment options.

Treating Secondary Cough Headaches

Before treating secondary cough headaches, it’s necessary to know what the underlying cause of the headache is. You may need to have a CT scan or an MRI scan to check for any abnormalities in the brain or the spinal cord. Treatment options for secondary cough headaches may include surgery to remove a tumor, drain excess fluid in the brain to relieve pressure, or repair holes that have caused a spinal fluid leak.

Cough headaches are rare, but it’s important to know about head pain and coughs. You’ll be able to recognize the symptoms of primary or secondary cough headaches, and seek treatment appropriately.

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