Ocular migraine, or eye headache, is a term people use to describe migraine that causes visual symptoms. It is not a distinct medical condition. COVID-19 may also cause this type of headache.

The temporary visual changes migraine can cause are known as aura. People may see lines, spots, flashes of light, or blind spots before the headache begins. Around 25–30% of individuals with migraine experience aura.

Migraine with aura differs from retinal migraine, which is a rare subtype that causes significant vision changes in one eye. This can include decreased vision and temporary blindness.

In this article, we discuss whether there is a link between ocular migraine and COVID-19. We also examine whether ocular migraine is a long COVID symptom and discuss potential treatments.

Coronavirus data

All data and statistics are based on publicly available data at the time of publication. Some information may be out of date. Visit our coronavirus hub for the most recent information on COVID-19.

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Photo collage showing COVID-19 swabs on the left and a person with their hands on their face due to ocular migraine on the right.Share on Pinterest
Design by MNT; Photography by Mauro Grigollo/Stocksy & Lucas Ottone/Stocksys

Ocular migraine is a term people use to refer to migraine subtypes with visual disturbances, such as migraine with aura. Individuals also sometimes use it interchangeably with retinal migraine, although the two are different.

Migraine with aura

Migraine with aura results in sensory symptoms that can occur before or during a migraine episode. They can involve changes in a person’s sight, hearing, or physical sensations. When the aura is visual, the symptoms affect both eyes.

Aura may last for 5–60 minutes. Approximately 25–30% of people with migraine experience aura at least some of the time, with 20% experiencing aura in every attack.

Some examples of visual aura include:

  • blind spots
  • floating zigzag lines or patterns
  • flashing or flickering lights
  • colored lines and spots
  • shimmering spots or stars

Retinal migraine

Retinal migraine is a rare condition that causes temporary vision loss in one eye that can occur several times per day. Each attack lasts 5–60 minutes and may occur with or without pain.

If a headache occurs, it will develop within 1 hour after the visual changes, usually on the same side as the affected eye. The symptoms can include:

  • blurred vision
  • flashing lights
  • blind spots
  • partial vision loss
  • complete vision loss

Sometimes, retinal migraine causes complications, such as permanent vision loss.

Headache is a common symptom of COVID-19. In 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) stated that, out of more than 55,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, headaches were a symptom in 13.6% of them.

According to a 2021 review, 25% of people with headaches during COVID-19 present with migraine-like symptoms. This can happen even if they have no history of migraine.

People in this group may experience aura as other individuals with migraine do. However, it is unclear how common this is.

COVID-19 may worsen migraine symptoms in people who already have the condition. For some, this may include aura.

For example, one case study looked at three female patients with a history of migraine without aura that previously responded to treatment. With COVID-19, they experienced more severe migraine with aura that did not respond to typical pain medication.

However, as this was a case study on a very small group of people, it does not conclusively prove that COVID-19 was responsible, nor that it was a common occurrence. Therefore, more research is necessary to understand how the disease affects migraine.

A 2022 review states that headaches are a frequent symptom of long COVID. Usually, they resemble tension-type headaches, but some people also develop migraine-like headaches.

Long COVID refers to lingering or new symptoms that persist after the initial COVID-19 infection. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), these symptoms can last for weeks, months, or years.

Scientists are still investigating how SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, causes persistent headaches. Many current theories involve the trigeminal nerve, which starts behind the ear and branches out to the eye, nose, and jaw.

The continued activation of the immune system and trigeminal pathways may play a role in long COVID headaches.

If a person experiences ocular migraine during a COVID-19 infection, they may find it helpful to:

  • take over-the-counter (OTC) pain medication as soon as symptoms appear
  • lie down in a dark room
  • avoid any triggers, such as bright lights

OTC pain medications such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) may also help with other COVID-19 symptoms, such as body aches or fever. For most, the symptoms of a COVID-19 infection will get better on their own.

However, if migraine persists after the initial infection with the disease, people may need ongoing treatment. Doctors have not yet developed medications specifically for COVID-19-related headaches. They may recommend existing migraine treatments, such as:

  • triptans, such as sumatriptan (Imitrex) and rizatriptan (Maxalt)
  • dihydroergotamine nasal spray (Migranal)
  • calcitonin gene-related peptide antagonists, such as ubrogepant (Ubrelvy) and rimegepant (Nurtec ODT)
  • anti-nausea drugs, such as metoclopramide (Reglan) or prochlorperazine (Compro)
  • Botox injections

However, people who have had a stroke, uncontrolled hypertension, uncontrolled diabetes, and certain types of migraine need to avoid taking triptans and ergotamines. A doctor can offer more advice on what medications might be suitable.

Learn more about ocular migraine and its treatment.

If a person thinks they may have COVID-19, they should stay home and follow local guidelines for getting a test.

Seek emergency help if someone develops severe COVID-19 symptoms, such as:

  • difficulty breathing
  • blue, white, or gray lips or nails
  • new confusion
  • loss of consciousness

Anyone experiencing lingering or new headaches after COVID-19 should contact a doctor. A healthcare professional can help develop a plan to improve symptoms and quality of life. They can also rule out other causes.

People should also get emergency help if they experience:

  • a sudden, severe headache
  • sudden vision changes, such as blind spots, that do not go away
  • sudden facial drooping
  • sudden weakness in the arms, legs, or down one side of the body
  • difficulty talking or moving

Headache is a common symptom of COVID-19, and in some cases, the symptoms are similar to migraine. Some people report experiencing ocular migraine, or migraine with aura, during or after the infection. They may have temporary visual disturbances, such as seeing flashing lights or spots, before a headache begins.

At the moment, it is unclear how commonly people with COVID-19 experience ocular migraine or what the link between COVID-19 and visual aura is. More research is necessary to understand if or how COVID-19 causes it.