Runny nose, watery eyes, frequent sneezing and a stuffy head — the misery of a cold seems never-ending. To add to your woes, a cold may sometimes come with a headache, too. But is that a warning sign of something more serious?
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Why Colds and Headaches Occur Together
"It is not unusual to see headaches in association with flu-like symptoms, viral infections or the common cold," says Noah Rosen, MD, director of the Northwell Health Headache Center in Great Neck, New York. He explains that a headache with a cold is dull and feels like a tight band or vice on your head. You might also be sensitive to light or sound.
Miran Salgado, MD, chairman of neurosciences and chief of the division of neurology at New York-Presbyterian Brooklyn Methodist Hospital, agrees that headaches often accompany colds. "Headaches are common manifestations of colds, seen in nearly 50 percent of cold sufferers," he says.
Dr. Salgado points out that the inflammation that occurs with a cold may cause the blood vessels in the head to dilate, resulting in migraine-like headaches. The same inflammation might also cause swelling in the sinuses, which can lead to obstruction.
But both experts say that what feels like a cold and headache may not always be a cold. Sometimes, there are other underlying causes, such as an allergies or something more serious.
Allergy headaches can cause pain around the sinuses. The pain may be in your face, rather than across your forehead or top of your head, feel like throbbing and be only on one side, according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (ACAAI).
To keep these headaches at bay, it's important to avoid allergy triggers, such as foods, smoke or even stress, the ACAAI says. Over-the-counter medications, such as antihistamines or pain relievers, can help with allergic headaches, but if you're having these types of headaches frequently, you should see an allergist for testing and possible prescription medication.
More Serious Causes
If you feel a headache when you sneeze, it may be because of increased pressure in your head, according to Dr. Salgado. He adds that a serious cause of pain when sneezing or coughing might be a brain tumor, but there are also more benign causes, such as a brain malformation called a Chiari malformation. This condition might not cause problems, or it could cause a headache when sneezing or coughing.
Dr. Rosen adds that a degenerated disc in the neck could also cause pain when sneezing or coughing.
Help at Home
If you're just experiencing a run-of-the-mill headache with a cold, Dr. Rosen recommends using a warm air humidifier to keep the air moist. If you have a lot of congestion, using a neti pot and rinsing with saline might help. He also suggests staying well-hydrated and getting plenty of rest.
Sleep plays a role in many types of headaches, so staying well-rested might help prevent an aching head, too, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS).
Over-the-counter medications, such as decongestants, anti-inflammatory pain relievers and antihistamines can help, too, says Dr. Rosen. But limit how often you reach for them because taking these drugs over and over again could lead to what are called rebound headaches, he adds. NINDS advises not using them more than twice a week to prevent such a rebound.
NINDS also states that staying in general good health may lessen headaches. That means getting regular aerobic exercise and eating healthy foods.
Read more: Is Your Home Giving You a Headache?
Any signs of an infection, including discharge with unusual colors or a foul smell, usually warrant a doctor's visit, Dr. Rosen says.
According to Dr. Salgado, headaches with fever or confusion or headaches that progressively worsen are other signs that you should see a doctor. If you wake frequently with headaches or you have neurological symptoms with a headache, such as impaired balance, double vision, weakness or numbness, he says to seek immediate medical help.
- Noah Rosen, MD, director, Northwell Health Headache Center, Great Neck, New York
- Miran Salgado, MD, chairman, department of neurosciences, chief, division of neurology, New York-Presbyterian Brooklyn Methodist Hospital
- American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology: "Allergy Headache"
- National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke: "Headache: Hope Through Research"
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.