February 4, 2022

Why Does My Head Hurt When I Cough?

Coughing is your body’s way of responding to something that is irritating your airways. A cough typically only bothers your throat and lungs, though there may be times when it causes head pain.

Knowing more about cough headaches can help you determine whether your cough is serious enough to require a visit to the doctor. Here’s a closer look at what causes your head to hurt when you cough and how to contact a healthcare provider who can help.

Can Coughing Cause Headaches?

Yes, coughing can cause headaches that are typically known as “cough headaches.” A cough headache is usually caused by straining in some other way while you are coughing. The straining that causes these headaches may occur when you sneeze, laugh, cry, blow your nose, sing, or have a bowel movement.

Cough headaches can be primary or secondary.

Primary Cough Headache

A primary cough headache is caused by the cough itself, and not by another health problem. Primary cough headaches are uncommon and harmless, and usually only occur when you strain in some way such as when laughing, crying, or sneezing. These types of cough headaches typically go away on their own.

Secondary Cough Headache

A secondary cough headache is far more serious than a primary cough headache. Like primary cough headaches, they may also be caused by straining.

Secondary cough headaches usually occur due to defects and structural problems in the brain. Brain tumors and weakened brain blood vessels are some of many brain conditions that may cause secondary cough headaches.

What Are Symptoms of a Primary Cough Headache?

A primary cough headache can last anywhere from one second to 30 minutes. In very rare instances, they can last for up to two hours.

head painOther symptoms of a primary cough headache include:

  • A headache that comes on suddenly when you cough or strain
  • A headache that is felt at the front of the head, or on both sides of the head
  • Pain that ranges from moderate to severe
  • Pain that may feel sharp, stabbing, splitting, bursting, or explosive
  • A dull, aching pain that lasts for several hours after the initial onset of the headache

What Are Symptoms of a Secondary Cough Headache?

A secondary cough headache will usually last longer than one minute. These types of headaches tend to only affect people under the age of 40.

Other symptoms of a secondary cough headache include:

  • A headache that comes on suddenly when you cough or strain
  • A headache that is felt at the back of the head
  • Pain that ranges from moderate to severe
  • Pain that may feel sharp, stabbing, bursting, explosive, pressing, dull, or electrical
  • A headache that may occur with other symptoms including dizziness, fainting, loss of balance and coordination, and numbness in the face and upper limbs

What Causes Head Pain When Coughing?

The exact cause of a primary cough headache is not well understood by doctors and researchers. Some doctors think that coughing increases pressure in the chest and stomach, which may then lead to increased pressure in the brain.

man with headacheA secondary cough headache may be triggered by one of several causes. These causes include:

  • An abnormal or defective skull shape
  • A defective cerebellum, the part of the brain that controls balance
  • A weakened blood vessel in the brain, also known as a cerebral aneurysm
  • A brain tumor
  • Spontaneous leaking of the liquid around your brain and spinal cord

Certain risk factors may increase your likelihood of developing a primary cough headache or a secondary cough headache. You may be at risk for getting a primary cough headache if you are a male or over the age of 40. The main risk factor for a secondary cough headache is being under the age of 40.

Why Do I Experience Pressure in My Head When Coughing?

The pressure you feel in your head when you cough is normally due to the abdominal pressure that occurs when you cough. The pressure exerted by your abdomen radiates to your head to cause a headache. This is why activities that cause you to strain, like bending over, laughing, and sneezing can often lead to a cough headache.

How Can Cough Headaches Be Treated?

Primary cough headaches usually go away on their own within minutes. If you suffer from primary cough headaches regularly, your doctor may prescribe medications that can reduce their pain or prevent the pain entirely. These medications include indomethacin, propranolol, and acetazolamide.

Secondary cough headaches can be treated by addressing the underlying health condition that is causing your cough. These headaches are usually triggered by brain problems, which means treatment usually involves a type of surgery to correct the brain condition.

Can You Prevent Cough Headaches?

Primary cough headaches are rare and uncommon. However, you may be able to prevent them by taking steps to prevent the events that trigger them. For example, if your cough headaches are caused by sneezing, you can keep your home clean and avoid irritants like pet dander that may trigger sneezing.

woman drinking waterOther steps you can take to prevent primary cough headaches include:

  • Avoiding medications that cause coughing as a side effect
  • Consuming plenty of water and fiber to promote easier bowel movements without straining
  • Avoiding activities that involve heavy lifting or bending down
  • Exercising regularly and eating healthy foods to prevent illness and avoid blowing your nose or coughing

Secondary cough headaches cannot be prevented as easily since brain conditions cause them. However, you can work with your doctor to prevent or treat brain conditions that may cause secondary cough headaches.

What To Do When Coughing Causes Head Pain

If you frequently experience head pain when coughing, the best thing you can do is meet with your doctor. Your doctor can examine to determine the root cause of your headaches and discuss your available treatment options.

Healthcare Associates of Texas is home to a large team of board-certified medical professionals who can work with you to diagnose and treat chronic coughing and head pain. Visit our website today to find the nearest location and request an appointment.