Cough Headaches

What are Cough Headaches?

Cough headaches are an unusual, but not rare condition that is caused by coughing or straining. This condition can be caused by any type of straining, but happens most commonly in coughing. Primary cough headaches are usually nothing to worry about and over the counter medications can usually treat these effectively.

Secondary cough headaches are considered more serious. They can be caused by a problem inside the brain. Surgery may be required to treat secondary cough headaches.

What are the Symptoms of Cough Headaches?

Primary cough headaches usually start right after you cough or strain in some way.

Primary cough headache symptoms

  • Have a duration from a couple of seconds, to a few minutes after coughing stops. However, they can last for a few hours.
  • Pain is usually described as sharp or stabbing pain.
  • Effects both sides of the head. Sometimes pain in the back of the head is reported as worse.
  • Could be followed by a dull headache that lasts for several hours.

Secondary cough headache symptoms

Secondary cough headaches have symptoms that are similar to what is outlined above. However, many patients experience:

  • Headaches with a longer duration
  • Headaches with dizziness
  • Unsteady gait
  • Fainting spells

Cough Headaches Causes

Cough headaches are triggered by coughing and other types of straining, such as sneezing, blowing the nose, having a bowel movement, laughing, and crying. They are divided into two categories: primary cough headache and secondary cough headache. In addition to the general causes, there are also specific causes that distinguish both types of the disorders. There is no known cause for primary cough headaches; however, there are some speculations as to what may have caused them. One possible culprit is the increased pressure in the veins that surround the brain. It can be brought on by coughing, straining, or the Valsalva maneuvers. Another possibility is the narrowing of the veins of the neck or of the sinuses.

Unlike a primary cough headache, there are several definite causes that are attributed to a secondary cough headache. The following causes include the defects in the skull’s shape and in the cerebellum and a portion of the brain that controls the balance. These types of defects are called Chiari malformations. Other causes include cerebral aneurysm, brain tumor, and spontaneous cerebrospinal fluid leak.

How are Cough Headaches Treated?

Patients who have a history of primary cough headaches are usually prescribed a prescription based medication that is taken daily. This will help prevent headaches from occurring spontaneously, or lessen the severity of them when they do appear.

If the headaches are not frequent, your doctor will recommend an over the counter medication that will relieve the headache when it does appear.

It is rare, but your doctor may recommend a spinal tap to help reduce the amount of spinal fluid that surrounds your brain. This will help relieve the pressure inside your head that causes the headaches.

Secondary cough headaches are more severe. Typically, surgery is required to fix the structural abnormality that is causing the headaches. Doctors have realized that preventative medications do not stop the onset of secondary headaches. However, even though a patient may gain relief from the pain with a medication, it does not mean that the headache is a primary cough headache.

Cough Headaches Prevention

Fortunately, there are several preventative measures that patients can take that may help reduce the number of headaches they experience. They can seek treatment for lung infections and avoid medications that list coughing as a side effect. They can also get the annual flu shot, take the stool softener for constipation, and minimize the heavy lifting and bending for a long period of time. If they already experience this type of ailment, they should seek appropriate treatments from their providers such as medications for primary cough headaches and surgery for secondary cough headaches. While it does not hurt for patients to take medications for primary cough headaches, they are usually harmless and improve on their own. Secondary cough headaches, on the other hand, are more severe and require medical intervention.

Last Reviewed:
September 19, 2016
Last Updated:
December 08, 2017
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