What Causes a Cold Headache and How to Treat It

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A cold headache could actually be a tension headache if you're blowing your nose hard and often.
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Colds and other respiratory infections are known for giving you a cough and congestion. But they can also make your head hurt.


Though it might not be the first symptom you think of, "it's not uncommon to get a headache when you have a cold," says Minh Nghi, DO, an internist at Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospital Southwest Fort Worth and Texas Health Physicians Group.

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The throbbing isn't usually cause for concern. But it can be uncomfortable and make it even harder to get through the day. Here's why it happens and what you can do to feel better.

1. Dehydration

Not drinking enough water is a known headache trigger, according to the Cleveland Clinic. And it's easy to get dehydrated when you're sick.

"Your fluid needs increase when you have an infection, since you tend to breathe more rapidly and expel more water vapor," Dr. Nghi says.


At the same time, you might not be as interested in eating or drinking, which can quickly add up to a headache-inducing H2O deficit.

2. Lack of Sleep

Spent the night tossing and turning because you were stuffy or your throat hurt?

"If you're uncomfortable, you're not going to sleep as well, and that can definitely trigger a headache for some people," Dr. Nghi says.


3. Coughing, Nose Blowing or Sneezing

All of these things can make your head hurt when you're doing them repeatedly, which is probably happening when you have a cold.

Straining when you cough (or sneeze or blow your nose hard) "increases pressure inside your skull," which can make your head hurt, Dr. Nghi explains. "There are also a lot of muscles and tendons around your head. When you cough, they clench up and can cause a tension headache."


4. Sinus Pressure

Throbbing that clusters around your eyes, cheeks and forehead can be a sinus infection or sinus headache, which sometimes comes on after a cold.


The pain might get worse when you bend forward or lie down, and it could cause an achy feeling in your upper teeth, per the Cleveland Clinic.


5. Your Body's Immune Response (aka, Inflammation)

Your body's efforts to fight off the cold can sometimes cause or worsen head pain.

When you get infected by an upper respiratory virus, your immune system launches an inflammatory response to get rid of the invader. (For instance, your nasal passages might swell and become congested.)


The immune response also causes your blood vessels to dilate, which allows more blood and fluid to flow through. And for some, that dilation can lead to a headache, Dr. Nghi says.

"In a closed space like your head, there's only so much pressure that your brain likes before it thinks, 'there's something going on here,'" he explains, and that can result in head pain.


6. Cold Weather

A big chill can trigger a headache, perhaps by causing an imbalance in brain chemicals like serotonin, according to the Mayo Clinic.

And if you're already feeling lousy from your cold and are teetering on the brink of a throbbing head, it's possible that stepping out into frigid temps could send you over the edge.

How to Get Rid of a Cold Headache

Headaches caused by a cold or cold weather can usually be managed the same way you'd deal with headaches that happen for other reasons, Dr. Nghi says. What's more, most of the strategies you'd use to manage your other cold symptoms can also help your head feel better. You can:


  • Take an OTC pain reliever.‌ "Acetaminophen will do double duty [for a headache and cold-related discomfort]," Dr. Nghi says. "If there's added sinus pressure, take a decongestant." Try Sudafed Sinus ($7.64, Amazon).
  • Get plenty of rest.‌ Spending time in a dark, quiet room can help ease head pain. And the more rest you get, the more energy you'll have to fight off your cold.
  • Drink lots of fluids‌. Drinking enough can help ease or stave off dehydration headaches. Warm liquids like herbal tea or broth might be more appealing than water when you're sick, and they can soothe a sore throat too.
  • Try a warm or cold compress.‌ Placing one on the spot where your head hurts can help take the throbbing down, the Cleveland Clinic notes.

Is It a Migraine?

If you're prone to migraines, there are plenty of things about a cold that can set off your symptoms or make them worse. But migraine pain tends to stand apart from other types of headaches, so they're fairly easy to tell apart, Dr. Nghi says.

Migraine pain usually causes severe throbbing on just one side of the head. It's often accompanied by an increased sensitivity to light, sound or smells, as well as nausea or vomiting.

They tend to start first thing in the morning and linger for at least four hours (though they can last as long as 72 hours), notes the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

When to See a Doctor

A mild headache can be par for the course when you have a cold, and if you're prone to migraines, it's not unusual for a cold to trigger one.

You should seek medical attention, though, for headaches that cause new symptoms or symptoms that are worse than usual, Dr. Nghi says. That includes headaches that cause visual disturbances, headache that don't improve with over-the-counter pain relievers or headaches that last for more than a day.




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.

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