Why Your Head Hurts When You Cough

If you've ever been hit with a coughing fit, only to then be immediately hit with a pounding headache, you may be wondering what the link is between the two. While you've likely heard of a migraine headache, tension headache, or an ice pick headache, there is actually a term for a cough-related headache too. True to its cause, it's known as a cough headache. 

A headache prompted solely by coughing is relatively rare. In fact, research from a 2013 scientific review published in The Journal of Headache and Pain notes that lifetime prevalence rates of cough headaches stands at 1%. The condition is associated with the sudden boost in abdominal pressure that takes place when we cough. The same is true for other forms of bodily strain such as blowing our nose, sneezing, or defecation, notes the Healthcare Associates of Texas. The increased pressure involved in these actions travels to the head, thus prompting a headache. 

However, there are different types of cough headaches. Depending on which one you experience, you may also experience some markedly different symptoms.

Primary versus secondary cough headaches

Headaches that are caused by coughing — and coughing alone — are called primary cough headaches (via Healthcare Associates of Texas). These kinds of cough-related headaches are generally temporary and not considered dangerous. The other kind of cough headache one can experience is a secondary cough headache. Similar to a primary cough headache, this kind of headache can also occur when the body is under strain. However, a secondary cough headache can potentially be dangerous, as it is often tied to an underlying brain condition. 

The pain of a primary cough headache is often isolated to the front or sides of the head, while a secondary headache is frequently experienced toward the back of the head. In both cases, individuals may experience stabbing, explosive, bursting, sharp, or dull aching sensations, among others. 

Primary cough headaches often come and go relatively quickly. Most last anywhere from one second to one half-hour on average. Although highly unlikely, some primary cough headaches may last as long as two hours. Conversely, secondary cough headaches are generally longer than one minute in duration and primarily affect individuals younger than 40 years of age. They may also be accompanied by dizziness, difficulties with balance or coordination, fainting, or loss of sensation in the face or upper limbs. 

Treating primary and secondary cough headaches

Brain conditions that have been linked to secondary cough headaches include cerebral aneurysms, brain tumors, cerebrospinal fluid leakage, or a defect in one's cerebellum or skull shape, according to experts at Healthcare Associates of Texas. Therefore, if you're experiencing a secondary cough headache, it's best to go about treating the underlying cause of the condition. In some cases, this may mean undergoing a surgical procedure.

Oppositely, primary cough headaches may not require treatment because they're usually so brief. For people with recurrent primary cough headaches, however, medications such as acetazolamide, propranolol, or indomethacin may be helpful. A 2023 case report published in Cureus found that a prescription of indomethacin and topiramate (along with a blood pressure medication to address headache-related rises in blood pressure) was successful in treating a patient with severe primary cough headache.

To help reduce the likelihood of a primary cough headache occurring, be sure to stay adequately hydrated, maintain a healthy diet along with routine physical activity, avoid medications that may prompt coughing, and refrain from engaging in activities that require you to lean forward or downward.