A person’s head might hurt when they cough. A primary cough headache can happen when straining causes sudden pressure when coughing. A secondary cough headache stems from another disorder, such as a brain tumor.

Primary cough headaches are usually temporary and harmless. Secondary cough headaches are more serious, as they can have a link to issues with the brain.

Read on to learn which symptoms indicate a primary cough headache or a more serious condition. We also look at home remedies and medical treatment options for both.

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A primary cough headache may cause pain on one or both sides of the head.

The causes of head pain after coughing depend on whether doctors classify the pain as a primary or secondary cough headache.

Primary cough headache

A primary cough headache is potentially due to sudden pressure in the abdomen, which coughing can cause. This may increase pressure in the head, causing a headache.

Other activities can also result in similar headaches. These include:

  • laughing
  • sneezing
  • bowel movements
  • heavy exertion, straining the abdomen

A primary cough headache has no link to any disorder of the brain or other health conditions.

Secondary cough headache

A secondary cough headache is due to an underlying condition, such as a brain disorder.

A condition called Chiari type I malformation is the most common cause of secondary cough headaches.

A Chiari malformation is a defect in the structure of the skull. This means the lower part of the brain, or cerebellum, descends through the base of the skull into the upper spinal canal.

Other causes of secondary cough headaches include:

Other activities may also bring on a secondary cough headache when one of the above conditions exists. Examples include laughing, weightlifting, or changes in head or body posture.

According to a 2013 review, primary cough headaches most often affect males and those more than 40 years of age.

A primary cough headache can be brief but may last up to 30 minutes. In some cases, people have reported a primary headache lasting up to 2 hours.

Other symptoms for a primary cough headache include:

  • pain on both sides of the head but can be on one side
  • pain that feels sharp or stabbing
  • pain beginning suddenly, during or after coughing
  • dull ache continuing after the initial pain has passed

A secondary cough headache can last anywhere between a few seconds to several weeks.

Symptoms of a secondary cough headache include:

  • high intensity of pain
  • varying location of headaches
  • varying duration of headaches
  • stabbing pain or dull ache
  • feeling faint
  • dizziness
  • feeling unbalanced

A secondary headache can also have other triggers besides coughing.

People may treat primary cough headaches at home. Identifying and treating the cause of the cough may help to reduce or eliminate the headaches.

Over-the-counter (OTC) pain medication, such as ibuprofen, may help to relieve the pain of a headache.

If a cold or flu is causing the coughing, cold or flu remedies may help to reduce coughing and related headaches. Clearing the sinuses may also help to reduce pressure in the head.

Home remedies people can try for a cold or flu include:

  • getting plenty of rest
  • taking OTC cough medication
  • drinking warm beverages, such as water with honey and lemon
  • drinking plenty of fluids
  • getting a yearly flu jab if someone is at risk of flu
  • washing hands with soap and water after coughing

Drinking hot beverages, such as honey and lemon, can help to soothe the throat, making a person more comfortable if they have a cold or flu.

If people cannot treat the cause of coughing at home, they may need to see their doctor.

A doctor may prescribe medication to treat a cough that a cold or other underlying condition, such as bronchitis, causes.

A doctor may prescribe antiviral medicine if people have the flu.

A doctor may also prescribe other medications to treat primary cough headaches, including:

  • anti-inflammatory drugs, such as indomethacin
  • beta-blockers
  • acetazolamide, to removes excess fluid and salt from the body
  • ergotamines for migraine headaches

These medications can help to reduce inflammation and coughing or relieve pressure and fluid buildup in the skull.

If someone has a secondary cough headache, they will need treatment for the underlying cause.

A doctor might then request a CT or MRI scan to check for any issues with the brain and spinal cord.

People with any disorder in the skull or spinal cord may require surgery to:

  • remove a brain tumor
  • restore normal flow of cerebrospinal fluid
  • relieve pressure in the skull from excess fluid
  • patch holes that are causing spinal fluid to leak

Surgery may help to treat the condition, reduce symptoms, and prevent any further progression of the disorder.

A primary cough headache is benign and may resolve over time by itself. If people have any severe or long lasting symptoms, they can see their doctor.

People should see their doctor if they experience:

  • faintness, dizziness, or loss of balance with headache
  • extreme pain, or sudden, severe headache
  • a headache that lasts for longer than 2 hours
  • frequent headaches due to coughing
  • symptoms, such as fever, chills, or unexplained weight loss
  • headache that alters intensity when changing posture or position, such as lying down to standing

A doctor can carry out a physical examination and any necessary tests to find out whether a headache from coughing is due to a primary or secondary cause.

Once a doctor has identified the type and cause of the headache, they will work out a treatment plan.

Although uncommon, people may sometimes experience a headache from coughing. This is often due to extra pressure in the abdomen that can increase pressure in the head.

A primary cough headache is due only to coughing, or another activity, such as sneezing or straining. Primary cough headaches are benign and may resolve by themselves.

A secondary cough headache is more serious and due to a disorder with the brain, such as a tumor or skull defect.

People may relieve a primary cough headache through reducing or eliminating coughing. OTC cough or pain medication may help, as well as drinking plenty of fluids and resting.

If people have a secondary cough headache, they will require treatment for the underlying cause.

If a person is unsure whether they have a primary or secondary cough headache or has severe or long lasting symptoms, they can see their doctor for a diagnosis and treatment.