Your Head Hurts When You Cough? Here’s What You Need To Know

Why does my head hurt when I cough? You probably heard this before…

Many people raise complaints about cough headaches.

This condition is often caused by coughing and other strenuous activities such as sneezing, nose blowing, crying, laughing, bowel movement, and bending over.

This type of a headache is often caused by the creation of pressure, which is exerted on organs such as the chest, head, and the neck.

Consequently, this leads to a headache and in some cases, pain on other parts of the body.

Read on to find out why your head hurts when you cough.


Categories of Cough Headaches

According to Mayo Clinic, physicians group cough headaches into two main categories.(1)

These are primary and secondary cough headaches. The appearance of primary cough headaches is usually sudden.

Actually, such headaches appear immediately after one cough, and may continue for up to 3 hours according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.(2)

A primary cough headache is characterized by sharp pain, which reverberates throughout the head, more so at the back. After a few hours, primary headaches tend to turn into a dismal pain, which may linger for a while.

Secondary cough headaches often last longer and are more incapacitating than primary headaches. In some cases, the condition is accompanied by dizziness, wobbliness, and in some cases, the urge to collapse.(3)

The condition may make one feel terrible since it endures for hours. Secondary cough headaches are more serious and thus require specialized treatment.(4)

They occur due to the aberration of the skull, or the protuberance of certain parts of the brain.



A primary cough headache often begins suddenly as one cough, or immediately after coughing. Sneezing and bending over may also lead to this condition.

The condition may last for up to three hours in severe cases and is often characterized by sharp, splitting or stabbing pain.

Both sides of the head are usually affected, though the pain is mostly concentrated at the back of the head. After the initial sharp pain subsides, you are likely to experience a dull pain, which endures for hours.

A secondary cough headache is manifested by symptoms that bear a close resemblance to those of a primary secondary headache.

However, New Health Advisor urges patients to be wary of headaches that last for hours after a bout of coughing or strenuous activity.(5) Enduring dizziness and wobbliness is similarly a source of worry.

In serious cases, those who are affected by secondary cough headaches may faint. Those who are affected are advised to consult their physicians when they start experiencing sudden headaches, especially after coughing.

Seeking medical attention should be more urgent among individuals who experience other disturbing symptoms such as blurred, imbalance, or double vision.


Causes of Primary Headaches

Medical practitioners are yet to unravel the real cause of primary headaches. However, secondary cough headaches are caused by various types of malformations. Individuals whose skulls have distorted shapes are at a higher risk of getting affected by a secondary cough headache.(5)

The condition can equally be caused by defects in the cerebellum. This is an integral part of the brain, whose function is to control body balance.

Some of the defects that lead to a secondary cough headache are referred to as Chiari malformations (also known as Arnold–Chiari malformation).

These include weaknesses within the circulatory vessels that supply blood to the brain. This condition is known as a cerebral aneurysm.(6)

Increased pressure on blood vessels that surround the brain, and narrowing of the vessels, is similarly a causal factor.

Research has also established a link between secondary cough headaches and brain tumors.(7)

Spontaneous cerebrospinal fluid leaks (SCSFLS) are also associated with the condition.


The Risk Factors of Cough Headaches

According to, there are certain conditions that pave way for the occurrence of both primary and secondary headaches. The main risk factors of primary cough headaches are age and sex.

A primary cough headache is likely to affect individuals who are older than 40 years. In addition, men stand a higher risk of being affected by this condition.(8)

Age is equally a risk factor for secondary cough headaches. In this regard, those who are younger than 40 years are at a higher risk of getting affected.(8)

Smoking is also a risk factor. This is because it exposes individuals to chronic bronchitis, which is manifested by heavy coughing. Such individuals are more likely to suffer from cough headaches.

Allergic reactions to allergens such as pollen grain, smoke, chemical fumes, and dust often lead to a dry cough and throat irritation, which is a major cause of cough headaches.

Sudden weather changes may cause incessant coughing, which might be accompanied by headaches.

In addition, asthmatic attacks and swelling of the larynx also lead to a  severe cough, which can cause headaches. This condition is often caused by viral and bacterial infection, and environmental pollution.

A cough headache is also more likely to affect individuals who find it difficult to expel phlegm, a condition that may result in headaches.

Sinuses that create intracranial pressure can similarly cause severe headaches.



Patients ought to seek medical attention from their physicians as soon as they start experiencing incessant pain after coughing bouts.

Your physician is the right person who can refer you to a neurologist. During an appointment, patients are often required to explain whatever symptoms that they are experiencing.

Their medical history is also important since it will enable the medical practitioner to establish the real cause of the headaches. In line with this, patients need to outline whatever illnesses that they might have suffered in the past, or any surgical operations that they might have undergone.

A doctor also has to have knowledge about medications and supplements that patients use on a daily basis.

Owing to the fact that primary cough headaches are not so serious, more attention is paid to secondary cough headaches. Generally, medical practitioners recommend brain imaging tests when diagnosing cough headaches.

These include MRI and CT scans, which are mostly used to rule out the possibility of other causes of a headache that patients experience.

Magnetic Resonance Imaging involves the use of radio waves and a magnetic field to create detailed images of a patient’s cranium structure. Such images enable practitioners to establish the real cause of a cough headache.

Computerized tomography scans involve the use of computers to create detailed images of the head and brain. The images are used in combination with images of other parts of a patient’s body to find out the cause of cough headaches.


Treating Cough Headaches

Treatment options that are offered by neurologists vary. This variation is brought about by the existence of both primary and secondary headaches.

According to Mayo Clinic, primary cough headaches are often treated using daily medication, which reduces pain, or prevents it altogether.(9)

The main preventive medications that are offered include Indomethacin, a drug that helps prevent inflammation.

In 2009 , results of a study published in Cephalalgia: an International Journal of Headache showed that 73% of patients respond well to this treatment.(10)

Propranolol is also offered to individuals suffering from primary cough headaches to reduce pressure on blood vessels. This consequently reduces blood pressure.

Acetazolamide s used on patients who have a high level of spinal fluid. It reduces the fluid, thus relieving pressure within the skull.

There are several other treatment options for individuals who are affected by primary cough headaches.

These include medications such as;

» methysergide

» naproxen

» intravenous dihydroergotamine

» phenelzine

» ergonovine

Lumbar puncture is used in rare cases to remove fluid that surrounds the spinal cord and the brain. This alleviates pressure within the skull, which is a major cause of cough headaches.

Surgery is the main intervention used on individuals suffering from secondary cough headaches according to Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research.(9)

And according to Simple Remedies, the serious nature of secondary cough headaches makes it impossible to treat it using medicines.(11)

Secondary cough headaches are caused by physical malformations, which can only be corrected via surgery.

Preventive medications are not effective.

Patients should, however, understand that responding to medication offered by neurologists does not necessarily mean that they are affected by a primary cough headache.

There are a number of home remedies that can be used to treat cough headaches.(11) The use of salt, lemon, and black pepper helps treat a cough.

A combination of white paper powder and honey has also been found to be effective as far as the treatment of cough headaches is concerned.

Grapes and garlic can similarly be used to cure a sore throat, which is one of the main causes of cough headaches.



The most important action that one needs to take is avoiding the risk factors of cough headaches. Conditions that trigger coughing need to be totally avoided.

There are other preventive measures, which include ensuring that lung infections are well treated, avoiding medications whose side effects is coughing, and getting flu shots each year.

Those who have been affected by the condition in the past should avoid lifting heavy objects, or bending for long. Constipation can also be avoided by using stool softeners.



Despite the fact that it is a debilitating medical condition, a cough headache can easily be cured.

Those who are affected should ensure that they seek medical help as soon as possible.

Before seeking medical help, patients need to do the following:

» Note down whatever symptoms that they are experiencing
» List down their medical history, including medical conditions that they have suffered from in the past
» Write down relevant questions that they might ask the doctor

Further reading