COVID-19 Symptom: Headache
Written by Ada’s Medical Knowledge Team
- A headache could be one of the first symptoms of a COVID-19 infection
- Most headaches caused by COVID-19 only last a couple of days
- COVID-19 headaches can be treated similarly to any other headache with rest, hydration, cool compresses, and pain medication if necessary
- Headaches may be a more common symptom in milder cases of COVID-19
A COVID-19 headache is an important symptom of an infection with the coronavirus. Usually, it’s one of the first symptoms to present itself, together with a fever, a cough, fatigue, and a loss of smell or taste. Some studies suggest that the headache may indicate the condition's outlook, making it an essential factor for diagnosis and treatment strategy. Even though COVID-19 often causes headaches, it’s important to note that not all headaches point to the coronavirus, and not all people infected with COVID-19 have headaches.
The intensity and duration of a COVID-19 headache may differ from person to person, but there are some ways to relieve the pain and avoid intensified headaches. In this guide, you can read about the causes of a COVID-19 headache, the usual progression, and actions you can take to feel better.
What causes a COVID headache?
A COVID-19 headache is a frequent symptom of coronavirus, together with other symptoms that are similar to those when you have the flu or a cold, like: 1 2
- A high temperature
- A cough
- Loss of smell or taste
- Shortness of breath
- Sore throat
- A blocked or runny nose
- An aching body
- Feeling tired and unwell
A headache associated with COVID-19 can occur in anyone across all age ranges, although it’s more frequent in younger patients and people with migraine. 3
The cause of a COVID-19 headache is still unclear, but several hypotheses might explain why a headache is often one of the symptoms of COVID-19: 4 5
- A COVID-19 headache may be caused by cytokines, which are cells that regulate your body’s response to infection, inflammation, and trauma. These cytokines can cause more inflammation (pro-inflammatory) or promote healing (anti-inflammatory). In the case of COVID-19, there’s thought to be an increase in pro-inflammatory cytokines. This inflammation caused by the cytokines may cause a severe headache.
- Another possible cause could be the activation of the trigeminovascular system. This system refers to parts of a cranial nerve, called the trigeminal nerve, which innervates blood vessels in the brain. The coronavirus may be able to invade these nerves directly, trigger them, and cause a bad headache.
- COVID-19 may also affect the lungs, leading to a shortage of oxygen in the blood, called hypoxemia. This oxygen shortage may also be the cause of headaches.
- A headache could also result from thrombosis, a blood clot that blocks a blood vessel. This may be due to COVID-19, as the infection causes an increased tendency to develop blood clots in severe cases.
What does a COVID-19 headache feel like?
Usually, a COVID-19 headache presents itself quite quickly after infection with the coronavirus and often appears simultaneously with other symptoms. The pain is moderate to severe and can be compared to the sensation of an episode of migraine where you can feel a throbbing pain at one side of the head. In other cases, it can feel like some sort of pressure, as you’d feel with a tension-type headache. A tension-type headache often starts as a headache in the back of the head, which then spreads out more to the sides and the front of the head. If you’re infected with the coronavirus and experiencing a loss of smell or taste, it’s more common to experience a headache as well. 6
The location of a COVID-19 headache can vary. You may feel the pain on both sides of the head, but it’s also possible that the headache is more localized at the front of the head. You may also feel the headache all over your head. In addition to the overall headache, you may also feel a headache behind the eyes. In some cases, a COVID-19 headache goes together with nausea and vomiting. 6 7 8 9 10
A COVID-19 headache is present primarily throughout the entire time you feel sick. The pain may worsen because of the following factors: 6 8
- Physical activity
- An episode of coughing
- The presence of sharp sounds or bright lights
How long does COVID headache last?
Most of the time, a COVID-19 headache only lasts for a couple of days, and it goes away together with the other symptoms, but there are also cases where the headache persists after the acute infection. However, the reasons for this still need to be clarified, and more research is required. 6
The headaches associated with COVID-19 usually have a sudden onset and gradually worsen throughout the day. These headaches are intermittent, which means that they occur at irregular intervals. These intervals may range from hours to days. 8
Some studies also suggest that people who experience a COVID-19 headache are more likely to have a shorter duration of COVID-19. 4
How can a COVID-19 headache be diagnosed?
A COVID-19 headache is an important criterion to diagnose COVID-19, as it’s often present at the onset of the infection. As COVID-19 is a virus that causes many symptoms, it’s essential to look at all symptoms together. If you’re only experiencing a headache, there can be many other possible causes apart from COVID-19. However, if your headache goes together with a loss of smell or taste or any of the other symptoms of COVID-19, it's strongly advised to take a test and self-quarantine until you have your test results. The most commonly used diagnostic tests are: 11
- NAAT tests, which check for a current infection with COVID-19. These tests are highly sensitive and specific for COVID-19. They’re usually done by taking a swab from the back of the nose. The collected sample is checked in a laboratory, and in most cases, you’ll receive your test results within 1-3 days or even earlier at some test locations.
- Antigen tests, which look for the presence of an antigen related to COVID-19. These are also highly specific but a little less sensitive than NAAT tests. These tests also exist as at-home tests, making them helpful in screening yourself. If the test results indicate that you do not have COVID-19 but are experiencing symptoms, then getting a NAAT test is advised as a confirmation.
Treatment of a COVID headache
COVID-19 headache treatment is very similar to most headaches unrelated to the coronavirus. Most people feel better within a few weeks, even without treatment. You can take the following steps to find some pain relief for your COVID-19 headache: 12 13 14
- Drink water
- Use a cold compress
Besides these home remedies, it’s also important to know what painkillers you can take for a COVID-19 headache:
Your doctor may also recommend other medications or treatments depending on the severity of your headache and other associated symptoms.
Wrapping it up
Headaches from COVID-19 are common and can be one of the first symptoms of a coronavirus infection. Although not everyone with COVID-19 experiences headaches, it's crucial to pay attention to this symptom, especially when combined with other symptoms, as it may indicate the severity of the infection. If you're experiencing a headache along with other COVID-19 symptoms, it's recommended that you self-quarantine and get tested. Remember that not all headaches point to COVID-19, but it's always better to test and be safe.
Q: Is a headache a sign of COVID-19?
A: Yes, a headache is one of the most frequent neurological signs of COVID-19. However, not every COVID-19 infection causes a headache.
Q: How long does COVID headache last?
A: The duration of a COVID-19 headache may vary. For most people, the headache will go away together with the other symptoms of COVID-19, but occasionally, the headache may persist and become chronic.
Q: What to do if COVID headache won’t go away?
A: Some people have a lingering headache even after the infection with coronavirus has cleared. It’s recommended to see a doctor to discuss treatment strategies for your situation.
Q. How do I get rid of COVID headache?
A: Several home remedies will help you eliminate a COVID headache, including rest, staying hydrated, and using a cold compress to soothe the pain.
Q: What can I take for a COVID headache?
A: Over-the-counter pain relievers such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) can help relieve COVID-related headaches, but it's important to consult with a doctor first, especially if you have other medical conditions or take other medications.
Q: Where is COVID headache located?
A: COVID-related headaches can occur in various locations on the head, and the location of the headache may vary from person to person. Some individuals may experience a general, all-over headache, while others experience pain in specific areas such as the head’s temples, forehead, or back.
Q: Does COVID cause lasting headaches?
A: COVID-19 may cause lasting headaches in some individuals, particularly those who experience long-term COVID-19 symptoms or complications.
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