As if the aches, pains and total misery of flu weren't bad enough, many sufferers also experience severe headaches. Possibly caused by fever or dehydration, these headaches often improve with over-the-counter painkillers like acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), together with adequate fluid intake to prevent dehydration. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates more than 16 million Americans get the flu each year, and headache is a common symptom. How common? In one study of 56 confirmed flu sufferers, 91 percent had headaches.
OTC Headache Treatment
Flu often causes a sudden onset of fever, headache and other symptoms such as body aches. When headache is caused by fever, acetaminophen or ibuprofen help bring the temperature down and decrease headache pain. Some physicians recommend alternating acetaminophen and ibuprofen to lower fever, and studies of children suggest alternating these two drugs lowers fever faster than using one alone. In addition, swollen nasal membranes and copious mucus production commonly accompany flu, contributing to that stuffy-head feeling, and potentially sinus pressure and headache. The doctor may recommend an OTC decongestant for this kind of headache.
Dehydration Headache Treatment
Dehydration refers to abnormally low levels of body fluid. This condition often triggers headache pain, according to research published in the August 2010 "Nutrition Reviews." If dehydration is mild, eating foods high in water and drinking water or sports drinks with added electrolytes -- such as potassium or sodium -- help with hydration. For example, grapes and oranges are at least 80 percent water. When dehydration becomes severe, hospitalization is required so intravenous fluids can be administered directly into the bloodstream.
Headache and Antiviral Treatment
If you're experiencing the first days of flu, your doctor may prescribe antiviral medication. In general, an antiviral can help halt headache and other symptoms sooner than no treatment. However, in drug trials, antivirals such as oseltamivir (Tamiflu) have been linked to side effects that include headache. Guidelines from the Infectious Diseases Society of America advise that some individuals with laboratory-confirmed or highly suspected flu should receive antivirals -- including those who require hospitalization, as well as those treated at home who are at risk for complications, such as pneumonia or bronchitis. People with cancer or diabetes, adults 65 years and older, and children younger than 2 are also included.
Warnings About Flu Headaches
Adults may take aspirin to treat flu-related headaches. However, children and teens 18 years of age and younger should never take aspirin -- its use could lead to Reye's syndrome, a life-threatening condition. The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke describes Reye's syndrome as a rare but serious disorder causing brain swelling and liver failure. Instead of aspirin, a child with a headache caused by flu may be treated with children's acetaminophen or ibuprofen. Headaches from other causes -- such as secondary infections that follow the flu -- are treated with antibiotics as well.
Is This an Emergency?
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Influenza (Flu)
- National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke: NINDS Reye's Syndrome Information Page
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: What You Should Know About Flu Antiviral Drugs
- Nutrition Reviews: Water, Hydration and Health
- BMC Medicine: Alternating Ibuprofen and Acetaminophen in the Treatment of Febrile Children: A Pilot Study
- British Medical Journal: Oseltamivir for Influenza in Adults and Children: Systematic Review of Clinical Study Reports and Summary of Regulatory Comments
- Brazilian Journal of Infectious Diseases: Patterns of Influenza Infections Among Different Risk Groups in Brazil
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Influenza Antiviral Medications: Summary for Clinicians
- Clinical Infectious Diseases: Seasonal Influenza in Adults and Children--Diagnosis, Treatment, Chemopropylaxis, and Institutional Outbreak Management: Clinical Practice Guidelines of the Infectious Diseases Society of America
- Pediatrics: Recommendations for Prevention and Control of Influenza in Children, 2015-2016