Headaches can occur with COVID-19 either as a symptom of the infection or due to factors such as dehydration or stress. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen (Advil), and other headache remedies may help.
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However, there are many possible causes of a headache, including stress and withdrawal from caffeine. People can often treat a headache at home using medical treatments, home remedies, or both. Occasionally, a headache will be a medical emergency, and a person will need medical care.
In this article, we provide an overview of COVID-19 and headaches, including the association between headaches and long COVID. We also discuss the outlook for people with COVID-19-related headaches, list some other possible causes of headaches, and offer advice on when to see a doctor.
A headache is a common symptom of COVID-19. According to a 2021 review, estimates of the number of people with COVID-19 who experience headaches as a symptom of the disease range widely from 10% to 70%. In most cases, the headaches are tension-type headaches, although about 25% of people present with migraine-like symptoms.
The likelihood of experiencing a headache as a symptom of COVID-19 may also depend partly on the variant of the coronavirus causing it.
A 2021 review notes that having a headache during a coronavirus infection is associated with a reduced risk of dying from COVID-19. However, the cause of this correlation remains unclear.
COVID-19 is a relatively new disease, and doctors have not yet developed a specific treatment for the headaches it can cause. Instead, people must rely on standard headache remedies. The exact treatment will depend on the type of headache they experience.
Most COVID-19 headaches are tension-type headaches. These headaches occur when muscular pain in the neck or shoulders radiates to the head. Pain medications can help ease muscular pain and headache pain.
Some medications that may relieve the symptoms
- ibuprofen (Advil)
- naproxen (Aleve)
- acetaminophen (Tylenol)
- combination headache medications, such as those containing aspirin, caffeine, and acetaminophen
Other possible symptoms of migraine include:
- sensitivity to light, sounds, or smells
- changes in vision or other bodily sensations
- nausea or vomiting
As with tension headaches, migraine headaches may respond to nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as naproxen, ibuprofen, and aspirin.
If the above drugs do not work, a doctor may prescribe one or more of the following medications:
- antinausea medications
- steroid medications, such as dexamethasone (DexPak)
- prescription migraine medications, called triptans, which include:
- sumatriptan (Imitrex)
- eletriptan (Relpax)
- almotriptan (Axert)
- rizatriptan (Maxalt)
Preventive treatments can help reduce the frequency of migraine headaches. Some options include:
One of the most effective natural treatments for COVID-19-related headaches is identifying and avoiding potential triggers. Some common headache triggers during coronavirus infection include:
- lying in bed, which results in muscle pain and tension in the upper body
- dehydration resulting from a fever or being too tired to get food or water
- sleep deprivation
Tips to help prevent headache triggers include:
- stretching or massaging the muscles gently
- drinking plenty of water
- taking acetaminophen to help control a fever
- practicing meditation or mindfulness to help reduce stress levels and promote better sleep
Some natural headache remedies include:
exercising, which may help with the following:
- reducing muscle pain and tension
- alleviating stress
- promoting sleep
- applying heat to tense muscles, which may help ease tension headache pain
- massaging tense muscles in the shoulders, neck, jaw, and back of the head
- having a warm shower or bath
- taking magnesium supplements, which may ease acute headaches and reduce the risk of chronic headaches
- avoiding the excessive consumption of caffeine
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There is no specific treatment for long COVID or for the headaches it can cause. The same treatments that people use for other headaches may help alleviate long COVID headache pain. However, they may not stop the headaches from coming back.
People with long COVID and headaches should talk with a doctor about longer term treatment options, as well as the possibility of participating in clinical trials.
Headaches are very common and do not necessarily indicate that a person has COVID-19. Even when a person with COVID-19 develops a headache, the disease may not be the cause.
In some cases, the headache may be a secondary symptom because, for instance, lying in bed has triggered a tension headache. In other cases, the headache may be completely unrelated to the coronavirus infection.
- sinus headaches
- migraine headaches
- tension headaches
- cluster headaches
- headaches that are the result of:
- stress and anxiety
- drinking too much caffeine or withdrawal from caffeine
Most headaches go away on their own or following appropriate home treatment. People who have COVID-19-related headaches may find that the headaches become less severe or less frequent once their COVID-19 symptoms subside.
However, long COVID is common, especially among older COVID-19 survivors.
In one 2021 study, 57% of 273,618 COVID-19 survivors experienced at least one long COVID symptom up to 6 months after the initial infection. Among these individuals, 8.67% had a headache 1–180 days after COVID-19, and 4.63% had a headache 90–180 days after COVID-19.
The above data suggest that although the frequency of COVID-19-related headaches typically declines with time, some people may continue to experience headaches even 6 months after the infection.
Most COVID-19-related headaches will resolve over time. However, a person who has COVID-19 or has previously had the coronavirus infection should speak with a doctor if they experience the following:
- symptoms of long COVID
- worsening headaches
- a headache that lasts for several days and does not respond to home treatment
- severe, frequent, or persistent migraine attacks
A headache can sometimes signal a medical emergency. A person should go to the emergency room or call 911 if they experience one or more of the following symptoms:
- very intense headache pain that is different from their usual headache pain
- a thunderclap headache, which is an intense headache that comes on suddenly in less than 60 seconds
- a severe headache that follows a popping sensation in the head
- an intense headache following a blow to the head, fall, or accident
- accompanying symptoms, such as:
- difficulty understanding language
- slurred speech
- difficulty with balance or coordination
- weakness in one side of the face or body
- loss of consciousness
A headache is a common symptom of COVID-19. It may occur as a primary or secondary symptom of the disease. Headaches can also present as a symptom of long COVID.
The treatment for COVID-19-related headaches is the same as that for most headaches unrelated to the disease. Treatment options include over-the-counter or prescription pain relievers, along with natural treatments, such as gentle exercise, massage, and maintaining adequate hydration.
A person should speak with a doctor if they experience persistent or worsening headaches during or following a coronavirus infection.
Most headaches are harmless and disappear on their own or following appropriate treatment. However, some headaches can signal a serious and potentially life threatening medical issue. Anyone who experiences a sudden or severe headache that occurs alongside other concerning symptoms should seek emergency medical attention.