In some people, the pressure caused by coughing can lead to a painful headache. Often, a cough headache will resolve on its own and is nothing to worry about. Other times, it may represent a more serious condition.
Read on to learn more about this type of headache and what you can do to reduce the occurrence.
What causes a cough
There are two types of cough headaches: primary and secondary. Both primary and secondary cough headaches are thought to be triggered by sudden pressure within the abdomen and chest. This pressure, and the subsequent headache, can also occur when:
- straining during bowel movements
- bending over
You may cough more forcefully or more often if you have sinus congestion. More forceful coughing may increase your risk for coughing headaches.
Primary headaches come on suddenly and are not usually serious. They are most common in men and in people over 40. Their root cause is unknown.
You may get a primary cough headache while coughing or immediately afterwards. Coughing headaches are typically bilateral, or felt on both sides of the head. Unilateral, or one-sided, headaches are not commonly associated with cough headaches.
Additional symptoms may include:
- initial pain lasting several seconds to several minutes
- a sharp, stabbing pain, sometimes followed by dull, aching pain, which can last for a couple hours
Secondary cough headaches may initially feel the same as primary cough headaches, but you may also have additional symptoms. These include:
- a longer lasting headache
- feelings of unsteadiness or difficulty with balance
Secondary headaches can indicate a more serious, underlying condition. These include:
- Chiari malformation. A Chiari malformation is a structural defect caused by a misshapen or too-small skull, or a defect in the cerebellum, the part of the brain responsible for balance. Chiari malformations can form before birth during fetal development. They can also occur later in life as the result of an injury, infection, or disease.
- Brain tumor. Brain tumors are masses of abnormal cells found in or near the brain. They can be benign or malignant.
- Cerebral (brain) aneurysm. A brain aneurysm is a bulge or weakness in a blood vessel in the brain. These bulges sometimes rupture, becoming life threatening very quickly.
- Changes in the pressure in the cerebrospinal fluid. An increase or decrease in the pressure can cause headaches.
Talk to your doctor if you’re experiencing cough headaches and are concerned about them. You should also see your doctor if you’re:
- experiencing cough headaches and they are new
- have symptoms associated with secondary cough headaches
- have very painful cough headaches, or those which last a long time
- have blurred or double vision
- are experiencing frequent cough headaches
If your doctor is concerned about, or suspects secondary cough headache, they’ll order diagnostic imaging tests to look at your brain. These may include magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and computerized tomography scan (CT).
Primary cough headaches
A number of medications may help reduce primary cough headaches. These include:
- prescription steroids or anti-inflammatory drugs to reduce inflammation and lessen coughing
- blood pressure medication
- medications that relax blood vessels in the brain
- diuretics that reduce the amount of spinal fluid and pressure within the skull
Secondary cough headaches
Treatment for secondary cough headache is based upon diagnosis.
If you have a Chiari malformation, you may need surgery to create more space for the cerebellum and reduce pressure on the brain.
If you have a brain tumor, the type of tumor you have will determine your treatment. This may include:
- a combination of these treatments
If you have a brain aneurysm, you may require surgery, endovascular interventions, or a stent-like implant, called a flow-diverter.
If you have a cerebrospinal fluid leak, you’ll need surgery to fix it.
Reducing or eliminating your cough or other straining behaviors can help reduce primary cough headaches.
Preventing colds and other infections can reduce your risk for developing nasal congestion, a cough, or a sneeze. Here are some prevention tips:
- Get a flu shot once year.
- Wash your hands often, especially if you’ve been in crowded areas like a shopping mall, or use public transportation.
- Limit your exposure to people with a cold or the flu, when possible.
- If you’re 65 or older, get a pneumonia vaccine.
If you do develop a cold or the flu, take steps to help yourself recover:
- Drink warm beverages, such as chicken soup and herbal tea.
- Drink lots of water.
- Use over-the-counter cough suppressants or decongestants.
- Breathe in steam.
- Use a neti pot.
- Use a vaporizer.
- Suck on cough drops.
- Get plenty of rest.
if straining during bowel movements is part of the cause, using laxatives or stool softeners may help. You may also want to avoid lifting heavy things, which place a strain on your abdomen.
Secondary cough headaches may respond temporarily to at-home treatments, but their root cause must be addressed in order to eliminate the problem.
Headaches caused by coughing aren’t common, but they are possible. In some cases, they may indicate an underlying medical condition. That’s why it’s important to talk to your doctor if you frequently experience headaches brought on by coughing, especially if they last for two or more hours, or are extremely painful.