If you’ve ever said to yourself, “I wonder why my head hurts when I cough,” you’re certainly not alone. Cough headaches are an uncommon form of primary headache that may not signal a larger health problem.
However, secondary cough headaches, which differ from primary cough headaches in their cause, are usually tied to more pressing health conditions that require immediate attention.
If you’ve recently been experiencing a shooting pain in your head when coughing, a doctor’s visit may be in order.
Primary and secondary cough headaches are usually set off by coughing or other straining stimuli like sneezing, laughing or blowing your nose. Although a primary cough headache can settle in a matter of seconds or minutes, a secondary cough headache may feature accompanying symptoms like dizziness, altered equilibrium, or the sensation to faint.
Why Does My Head Hurt When I Cough?
If your head hurts when coughing, it could be the result of either known or unknown conditions. If you experience recurring cough headaches that have been examined by a doctor, you are likely suffering from primary cough headaches. Unfortunately, there is no known treatable cause.
Headaches in general are very difficult to accurately diagnose and exact causes are often hard to test.
Data suggests that 90% of all doctor-examined headaches cannot be tested, falling into the category of a primary headache. Other forms of primary headaches, in addition to primary cough headaches, include:
- Tension headaches
- Cluster headaches
- Paroxysmal hemicranias
Fortunately, these headaches typically are not linked to a dangerous condition, despite how painful they may be.
Secondary headaches, on the other hand, are caused by identifiable factors and represent about 10% of total headaches. Doctors call them secondary because they are the result of an underlying health issue, which may include:
- Defect in skull shape
- Defect in the cerebellum, the part of the brain responsible for balance
- Brain aneurysm
- Brain tumor
- Cerebrospinal fluid leak
These potential causes are why finding the root of your cough headache is so important. A secondary headache can indicate a life-threatening condition and requires immediate attention.
It is impossible to know whether you are suffering a primary or secondary headache if you merely feel pressure in your head when coughing. The degree of pain experienced is not an indicator of the type of headache you’re having, but age may play a role. Individuals over 40 are more likely to experience primary headaches, while younger individuals tend to experience a greater number of secondary headaches.
Regardless of your age, you should visit your doctor if you’re undergoing recurring feelings of shooting pain in the head when coughing.
Cough Headaches: Primary and Secondary
“My head hurts when I cough or bend over” is a common complaint of people experiencing cough headaches. In most cases, a cough headache is a form of paroxysm—a sudden, violent and painful shot that lasts less than a second and subsides in about five minutes. A dull pain may linger a bit longer, but the shooting pain defers.
While these headaches are more common in people above age 40, if it is your first, or they have been coming more frequently, assume it is a secondary cough headache and call a doctor. If it is ruled a primary cough headache, your doctor will likely prescribe some non-steroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID) painkillers depending on the frequency.
Cough headaches require more attention than regular headaches simply because the risk of a secondary headache is much higher. Although secondary headaches occur only 10% of the time, they make up 50% of all cough headaches. Thus, a headache from coughing too much is clearly something to note—especially if the back of your head hurts when coughing. It’s a coin-flip as to whether or not you could have a more threatening condition lurking.
Most secondary headaches are reported in patients with posterior fossia lesions, which mean there is damage, tumors, or wounds affecting the small space in the skull near the brainstem and cerebellum.
Because these conditions generally occur in childhood or early adulthood, a secondary cough headache is likely to be discovered at a younger age. Aside from damage in the form of tumor or malformation, potential causes of these headaches also include:
- Vertebrobassilar disease: A condition affecting the arterial system at the back of your brain. These arteries are the source of blood, oxygen and nutrients to brain structures. People with atherosclerosis are at risk for vertebrobasilar disease.
- Paget’s disease of the skull: A bone disorder where bone is broken down and rebuilt faster than normal. It can occur in the skull.
- Basilar impression: Skeletal malformations indicated by in-folding at the base of the skull.
- Subdural hematoma: Usually the result of a severe head injury that causes blood to collect inside the brain.
- Carotid artery disease
- Unruptured brain aneurysms
- Spontaneous intracranial hypotension: A leak of cerebrospinal fluid at the level of the spine that happens during a spontaneity movement.
Symptoms of Cough Headaches
There are signs to look for to help you distinguish between a primary and secondary cough headache. The symptoms can be similar, so it’s important to pay close attention to how you feel.
1. Primary Cough Headaches:
- Begin suddenly after coughing or other form of straining
- Last from a few seconds to a few minutes
- Causes sharp, stabbing, or splitting pain
- Can affect both sides of the head, but pain may be most intense at the back of the head
- May be followed by a dull pain for hours
2. Secondary Cough Headaches:
These often have the same symptoms as primary cough headaches, however, may feature:
- Longer lasting pain
Following a cough headache, it is important to seek medical attention. If symptoms like blurred or double vision arise, call an ambulance.
Home Remedies for Cough Headaches
If you have been examined by a doctor and can safely answer “why the back of my head hurts when I cough,” there are some remedies you can try that might relieve the pain and in your throat.
These remedies might not relieve the headache from coughing too much, but they might help limit the inflammation and soreness in your throat while preventing future coughing bouts that spawn headaches.
1. Lemon, Salt, and Black Pepper
Cut a lemon in half. Wrap one half and put it in the fridge for later, and cover the other half in salt and black pepper. Suck on the lemon for a little while and it might help with cough relief. Be warned—it could be a little spicy
2. Honey and Grape Juice
There are reports that a mixture of honey and grape juice may be effective to treat coughs. Mix some honey and a little grape juice in salt water and gargle in the throat for two to three times per day. Honey has antimicrobial and anti-inflammatories that may help.
3. Drink Tea or Water
Both tea and water can help clear mucus from the throat and help soothe the symptoms of a cough. Both relieve your throat from dryness and can serve as a quick fix. Mint tea with honey is a good option that can have antimicrobial and antioxidant benefits.
If these remedies do not help and you continue to experience cough headaches, consult your doctor.
Do’s and Don’ts to Ease General Headaches
If you’re experiencing primary headaches for any reason, even without a cough, there are a few things you should and should not do if you want to give yourself the best chance of feeling better.
- Drink plenty of fluids (preferably tea and water)
- Get plenty of rest if related to a cold or flu symptom
- Try to avoid stressful situations
Conversely, if you’ve got a headache, it’s wise to avoid:
- Soda and other sugary or carbonated beverages
- Skipping meals: Even of you don’t feel like eating, you should get your food in. Insufficient food will leave you lacking healthy nutrition and possibly worsen the headache.
- Sleeping too much: Rest is important if you’re fighting an illness, but could be counterproductive for a stress headache.
- Spending time in front of screens (television, tablet, smartphone, computer, etc.)
Don’t Ignore the Shooting Pain in Your Head from Coughing
When you experience pressure in your head when coughing or even shooting, splitting pain, don’t take it lightly. It is a problem that should be examined by a doctor as soon as possible to ensure that it is not a secondary cough headache triggered by a potentially threatening condition.
If you’ve been cleared yet still experience primary cough headaches, try the natural remedies listed above to help deal with the symptoms.
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