March 11, 2024/Brain & Nervous System

What To Know About COVID Headaches

They can feel like a typical headache or a migraine headache, but the pain can last for weeks to months

Person experiencing COVID headache, with calendar months floating in background

Ugh — you have COVID-19. In addition to body aches, a cough and tiredness, there’s a good chance you may also experience a skull-pounding headache.

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And a COVID headache can continue for weeks or even months after you test positive for COVID-19, with around-the-clock pain separated only by periods of agonizing and extreme spikes.

It’s one of the most common symptoms being experienced by a group known as COVID-19 long-haulers, or those with lingering issues related to the coronavirus, says headache specialist Emad Estemalik, MD.

Dr. Estemalik explains what we know about COVID headaches and how you can manage them.

What is a COVID headache?

A headache that develops in connection to a viral illness or infection isn’t particularly groundbreaking, but the situation is being seen more — and with greater pain intensity — in people following a COVID-19 diagnosis.

The condition is known as a new daily persistent headache. How long does a COVID headache last? It can last for months even for people who only had a mild case of COVID-19. Yes, that means you can have post-COVID headaches.

“People are left after the recovery with a new onset headache that doesn’t remit,” says Dr. Estemalik. “A patient will tell you they have a 24/7 baseline of headaches or pain that gets worse from time to time.”

Symptoms

What does a COVID headache feel like? If you experience a COVID headache, how it feels and where it’s located may be different from how it feels or where it’s located for someone else.

A COVID headache can feel like a typical headache, but in other cases it may resemble a tension headache or a migraine headache, making it feel like you have a COVID migraine not just a common COVID headache.

A study shows that a COVID headache typically causes moderate to severe pain and typically occurs on both sides of your head.

Causes

So, what causes a COVID headache? A definitive answer remains elusive, but there’s no question the problem exists in great numbers.

One study suggests that a COVID headache happens when the virus triggers your trigeminal nerve, which sends the feelings of pain, touch and temperature from your face to your brain.

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Finding relief from a daily persistent headache isn’t easy given that there’s no clear etiology, or cause, behind the pain. Research has yet to pinpoint why the headaches persist. Brain scans of those with persistent headaches tend to be normal.

Research also shows that a COVID headache is more likely to occur in:

  • Young people.
  • People who have frequent headaches or migraines.
  • People with loss of taste or smell or muscle aches during COVID-19.

Treatment options

Looking for COVID headache relief and just want to know how to get rid of it?

Most medicine cabinets include bottles of over-the-counter painkillers — typically aspirin, acetaminophen or ibuprofen — that get twisted open in the search for relief when a regular headache strikes.

If you’re dealing with a COVID-19 headache, odds are you’ll go the same route. But a word of caution if you do: Don’t lean on this approach for more than a week.

“We sometimes see these medications cause what we call a rebound headache or medication overuse headache,” says Dr. Estemalik.

The condition is exactly what it sounds like: A headache brought on by frequent use of a medicine in a short span of time. Exceeding daily dosage recommendations may trigger a rebound headache. Ditto with caffeine use with the medications.

If an over-the-counter medication doesn’t offer the relief you typically see, take that as a sign.

“That’s when you want to reach out to your primary care doctor to really address the issue,” says Dr. Estemalik.

Headaches and long COVID

Complicating matters is that a headache is often just one of many symptoms experienced by COVID-19 long-haulers. Many also report fatigue, shortness of breath, achy joints and chest pain in addition to a headache after COVID-19.

Providers typically use an “interdisciplinary approach,” with a variety of treatment options put to use to find what might work best. This can include a combination of medications, as well as psychological and physical rehabilitation techniques.

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If you’ve had COVID-19 and have a headache that won’t quit, don’t hesitate to reach out to a healthcare provider.

“This tends to be a very, very challenging headache to treat or manage,” admits Dr. Estemalik.

Bottom line?

Headaches are part of life. Statistically, 3 out of 4 adults across the world will deal with a pain in their head at some point this year. Another fact? There are more than 150 different kinds of headaches.

So, that headache that’s making you rub your temples may not be connected to a recent bout with COVID-19 or a sign that you contracted the coronavirus.

It could be linked to allergies … or stress … or the weather … or even certain food and drinks.

“If you have a headache alone in the absence of any other symptoms, it’s probably unrelated to COVID-19,” clarifies Dr. Estemalik. “But always stay on top of your symptoms and — when in doubt — see your doctor.”

He also offers three words of advice for anyone hoping to avoid the headaches that come with COVID-19: Get the vaccine.

Vaccination reduces your chance of getting the infection, and it also has an incredible effect of reducing serious illness and long-haul symptoms even if you were to catch it,” Dr. Estemalik adds. “It’s the best thing you can do to avoid the virus and what it brings.”

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