Cough, fever and shortness of breath used to be some of the most common signs (besides a positive test) that you’d been infected with COVID-19. But the latest variants have brought another rising symptom to the table: headache.
“Earlier in the pandemic we were seeing headaches frequently in patients who had lost their sense of smell and taste, but with Omicron, we are now seeing headaches even without loss of senses, and they often occur both during and after the infection period,” says Thomas Gut, D.O., director of the Post-COVID Recovery Center at Staten Island University Hospital, part of Northwell Health in New York.
And research is starting to emerge that backs up those anecdotal clinical findings. Headache, fatigue and cold-like symptoms such as runny nose were the most commonly reported Omicron symptoms, says one recent study in the journal The BMJ, while another in The Journal of Headache and Pain found headache to be one of the most frequent and persisting “long Covid” symptoms.
Medical experts are also finding that headaches are presenting as a Covid-19 symptom in both people who are predisposed (a.k.a previously suffered from headaches pre-infection), and those who have never had a headache before at all. “Many patients are saying that they have a headache for the first time during Covid, which is unfortunate,” says Rafia Shafqat, M.D., an OhioHealth neurologist.
Here’s what to know about a Covid-19 headache, plus how to find some relief.
What does a COVID-19 headache feel like?
If you’ve ever had a headache or frequently deal with them, this might sound familiar. But since there are several types of headaches — migraine, tension and cluster being the biggies— there’s a chance you may not have experienced this exact type of headache pain before. “Most people report it to be a tension-type headache, with a band-like phenomenon, but it can also be a migraine-type headache that comes with nausea or light and sound sensitivity,” explains Rachel Colman, M.D., board-certified neurologist and headache medicine specialist at Hartford Healthcare Ayer Neuroscience Institute in Connecticut.
Dr. Shafqat says a COVID-19 headache may also feel like or be accompanied by:
- Throbbing or pulsating pain
- Sharp, stabbing pain in the temples or back of the head
- Vertigo, lightheadedness or dizziness
- Sensory dysfunction such as numbness or tingling, difficulty thinking or ringing in the ears
What causes a COVID0-19 headache?
There could be a few things at play. For one, the body-wide inflammation you experience while infected with the virus could trigger a headache, as could the blood vessels in your brain becoming inflamed, says Dr. Colman. Then there’s the potential neurological piece, since we know COVID-19 can attack our neurological system, plus headache in general is a neurological condition. “The theory is that once the virus has gone up through the nose to the olfactory bulb (which affects our senses), it can attack nerves that contribute to pain in the head and impact blood vessels in the brain,” says Dr. Colman. “So a direct invasion there is one theory for why people have COVID-related headaches.”
Other things that happen during an infection, such as not staying hydrated enough, not eating enough or not getting good sleep may also contribute to or worsen a headache.
How long does a COVID-19 headache last?
It depends. Some people may have a headache until they test negative, while others may only have a headache for a few days of the active infection period. How long headaches last during “long COVID” is even murkier, with the symptom presenting for days, weeks or months. “It’s a mixed bag. Some patients who have had migraine and tension headaches before say they become more frequent right after COVID, and some people who have never had them routinely are developing tension-like headache symptoms that linger,” Dr. Gut says. “Usually, we see the headache symptoms go away after a few months.”
What’s the best way to get relief from a COVID-19 headache?
Spoiler alert: There’s no magic fix. “It’s pretty much the same things you’d do for a headache in another scenario; unfortunately there’s not anything extra special that you can do to feel better,” says Dr. Colman. “Lifestyle factors are super important, and if you want one trick I would say chicken soup is always a good idea — it’s hydrating, has nutrients and electrolytes, and is comforting.”
Focus on these lifestyle habits to help with a COVID-19 and “long COVID” headaches:
- Take over-the-counter pain medications such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen to help with pain during the acute infection period. “At the beginning of COVID they were saying not to take certain pain relievers, but that’s old news, so take what helps your headache and/or your other symptoms,” says Dr. Shafqat.
- Stay hydrated. When you don’t get enough fluids, tissues and your brain contract, which puts pressure on nerves that can trigger a headache.
- Don’t skip meals. Even if you don’t feel like eating, it’s important to in order to prevent blood sugar changes that may lead to a headache. Try easy-to-consume foods that you can pack nutrition in, such as smoothies, soups or stews, oatmeal, eggs and toast.
- Focus on sleep. Once you’ve recovered from COVID, try your best to get back to your regular sleep-wake schedule. “I know it can be hard to sleep when you have a headache, but try your best to get seven to eight hours,” Dr. Shafqat says. This can also help combat fatigue, another common “long Covid” symptom.
- Try to tame stress, which can be a headache trigger.
- Once you feel better, do light physical activity like walking. “It can be hard to consider going back to the type of exercise you used to do, but just start slow and build back up,” Dr. Colman says.
- If you know something about our environment is triggering your headache or making it worse — such as certain lights, sounds or smells — “taking yourself out of that environment is a good first step to help terminate that headache,” Dr. Gut says.
- Stay up-to-date on COVID-19 vaccinations. “This is still one of the best things you can do to help prevent “long COVID” symptoms,” says Dr. Gut. “The bivalent vaccine has been good at this.”
When to see a doctor for a COVID-19 headache:
If you have “the most horrifying headache of your life,” seek medical attention immediately because it could potentially signal something life-threatening like a brain bleed, says Dr. Gut. And always head to the ER if you experience a headache accompanied by stiff neck, decreased level of consciousness, seizure or severe light sensitivity, says Dr. Colman, as these can be signs of COVID-related meningitis or encephalitis (inflammation of the lining of the brain, caused by infection).
In general, it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor anytime headaches interfere with your daily life or become frequent enough for you to be taking OTC pain relievers on a regular basis — they can help you figure out medications that may help you get relief, or pinpoint underlying issues that could be contributing.
Alyssa is a senior editor for the Hearst Health Newsroom, where she has written research-backed health content for Prevention, Good Housekeeping and Woman’s Day since 2017. She has more than 13 years of reporting and editing experience and previously worked as research chief at Reader’s Digest, where she was responsible for the website’s health vertical as well as editing health content for the print magazine. She has also written for Chowhound, HealthiNation.com, Huffington Post and more.
This content is imported from OpenWeb. You may be able to find the same content in another format, or you may be able to find more information, at their web site.