Cough Headaches

So, what are cough headaches?

Everyone gets a headache from time to time, but on some occasions, coughing can cause a headache. This type of a cough headache can be simply a reaction developed over time, or it could be a sign of something more serious. Know the causes and symptoms of cough headaches and determine if you may need to seek medical attention.

Why cough headaches happen

Cough headaches happen most often in people over 40, but more specifically in men. In fact, men are four times as likely to have cough headaches after the age of 40. They seem to become triggered after a variety of activities including nose blowing, crying, bowel movement, singing, sneezing, and quick movements. Cough headaches arise from the increase in pressure in the head after coughing and exertion. These headaches can be intense, but the minor ones seem to last only a short amount of time before the patient feels relief.

Much like when you try to relieve the pressure in your ears when you fly, called the Valsalva's maneuver, this similarly occurs when people cough and exert too much pressure on the middle ear, and as a result, there is a headache. Intense physical activity can also trigger this type of headache. Cough headaches normally last from about a few seconds to 30 minutes. In extreme cases, the cough headache can last for hours.

How serious are cough headaches?

Cough headaches fall into two different groups based on their severity and symptoms. The Primary Cough Headache is usually harmless and goes away quickly on its own. It develops with strain and the individual recovers quickly without side effects. In some cases, however, the headache can linger for hours after the initial onset of pain.

When a headache appears, it creates a sharp, intense pain felt in the center and back of the head. The individual experiencing the headache usually feels it on both sides of the head.

The Secondary Cough Headache is more serious than the Primary Cough Headache. This type of a headache stems from some other type of medical issue going on with the patient. The causes can range from an aneurysm to a tumor.

In order to determine the cause of a cough headache, tests can pinpoint the cause of the pain and help alert to any hidden dangers. When individuals experience a Secondary Cough Headache they may become dizzy, faint, off balance, and the headache lasts much longer than if it were a Primary Cough Headache.

Diagnosing cough headaches

If you feel concerned about having a cough headache, it is important that you speak with your family physician to discuss the potential causes and treatment. Most people have primary headaches, but the few that think they are experiencing them as a symptom of something very serious should request tests to determine if there is something happening they should know about. A cough headache may be a sign of something that should receive immediate treatment.

Some of the symptoms of a secondary cough headache include fainting, dizziness, loss of balance, and a long-lasting headache. Secondary headaches can alert you to a life threatening condition you should not ignore. You should take note if the headaches accompany blurred vision or double vision.

Some of the conditions that cause a secondary headache can include a weak blood vessel in the brain called a cerebral aneurysm, a malformation of the skull. Part of the cerebellum is forced through the base of the skull where the spinal cord resides, which is called foramen magnum or Chiari Malformations, and is causing pain with increased pressure from the aforementioned activities.

Although most cough headaches do not pose a threat and should not create concern, especially as you age, if you experience any of the symptoms of a Secondary Cough Headache, you should immediately bring it to the attention of your doctor. It could be alerting you to a serious underlying problem and can give you a chance to address the issue before a more serious problem can develop.

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Last Reviewed:
July 17, 2017
Last Updated:
October 24, 2017