Help! My Head Hurts When Coughing

If your head hurts when coughing, you could have any number of things. For example, you could have bronchitis, a swelling of the larynx, and more.

Known as cough headaches, these types of headaches can occur when making any sudden movements- sneezing, crying, etc.

Some people may even get head pain when they bend over or laugh. There’s no doubt that this symptom is very annoying and you want to treat it as quickly as possible.

Primary vs. Secondary Cough Headaches

primary and secondary cough headache

Firstly, you need to families yourself with the two main types of cough headaches: primary and secondary. Here’s some information about each one:

  • Primary: This type begins very suddenly and will happen right after a cough or other type of straining. It can last anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes. In rare cases, it can last up to two hours. It will usually affect both sides of your head. For some people, the pain can be very severe in the back of the head.
  • Secondary: This will lead to longer lasting headaches, and may also be associated with dizziness. In more severe cases, the person may even faint. Note, if your head hurts when coughing, and it lasts for several hours, you may want to see a doctor. Secondary types require much more extensive treatment than primary types.

The pain and discomfort can be very debilitating. In some cases, people can’t concentrate on anything but the pain.

In the following sections, we’ll talk more about each type, as well as what to do about it.

Bottom Line: The two main types of coughing headaches are primary and secondary. They can result in pain, dizziness, and in extreme cases, fainting.

When Should You See a Doctor?

As with any symptom, it depends on the severity and frequency. Mild headaches on their own usually aren’t a medical emergency.

However, if they’re accompanied by double vision or vertigo, it becomes more serious.

If your head hurts when coughing, and it isn’t go away (or is getting worse), it’s time to see a doctor.

The sooner you get diagnosed, the sooner you’ll be able to alleviate your symptoms.

Note, it’s not recommended that you drive yourself to the hospital if you’re experiencing dizziness or blurry vision.

Bottom Line: If sudden actions like coughing, sneezing, or crying are giving you chronic headaches, then go see a doctor. If you’re dizzy, make sure that someone else drives you.

What Are the Causes?

head hurts when coughing

For a primary cough headache, there are currently no known causes. Keep in mind that while they’re not know, that doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

There are, however, many known causes to a secondary cough headache. These include:

  • Defect in skull shape
  • Cerebellum defect (this is the part of the brain that controls balance)
  • Weakness in brain blood vessels
  • Brain tumor (benign or malignant)
  • Leakage of cerebrospinal fluid

As you can see, the causes of a secondary type are way more serious than the primary.

This is why the treatment options for secondary types are much more extensive.

Some people are more prone than others to getting these types of headaches. Let’s talk about those risk factors now.

Bottom Line: There aren’t any known causes for a primary cough headache. But there are many for a secondary cough headache.

Risk Factors

If your head hurts when coughing, it might due to two risk factors. They are:

  • Age: As with most diseases and conditions, the older you are, the more likely you are to get it.
  • Gender: For unknown reasons, men are more likely to get cough headaches compared to women

The exception is with the secondary type. People younger than 40 are typically at a higher risk for this type of cough headache.

Preparing an appointment will probably begin with your family doctor. From here, they’ll refer you to a specialist who can better pinpoint the problem.

In the meantime, write down your symptoms. Even a symptom seems unrelated, it will help the doctor diagnose you better.

Next, make a list of all medications, supplements, and vitamins you’re taking. This information is crucial and can also help the doctor determine what you have.

Bottom Line: The two main risk factors for this condition is age and gender. Specifically, men over the age of 40 are more likely to get it.

Diagnosis and Tests

Various brain-imaging tests can be used to determine the cause of your symptom. The two main approaches include:

  • MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging): Radio waves and a magnetic field create computerized images of the inside of your body.
  • CT (Computerized Tomography) Scan: This diagnostic method is like that of an MRI. The main difference is that it uses an X-ray unit.

Both diagnostic tests are noninvasive. This will allow the doctor to study your brain without having to cut your open.

In some cases, a doctor will give you both. If the doctor finds a problem, they’ll put together the proper treatment plan.

In the next section, we’ll talk about the treatment options for people suffering from primary and second cough headaches.

Bottom Line: The two noninvasive diagnostic tests used for looking inside the body include the MRI and the CT scan.

Primary Cough Headache Treatments

If your head hurts when coughing, and it’s due to the primary type, you may receive any one of the following treatments:

  • Anti-inflammatory Drugs: The two most popular are Tivorbex and Indocin.
  • Blood Vessel Relaxer: These include Inderal and Innopran XL.
  • Diuretics: A diuretic, like Diamox, can reduce pressure inside the skull.

Other medications that your doctor may give you are ergonovine, phenelzine, and naproxen. In rare cases, a spinal tap will be required.

The purpose of a spinal tap is to remove the fluid that surrounds the brain. How will this help?

By alleviating pressure within the skull, thus, making your headache go away. Diuretics do the same thing- they reduce pressure within the skull.

As intracranial pressure goes down, that “band around the head” feeling should star to go away.

Bottom Line: Anti-inflammatory drugs, blood vessel relaxers, and diuretics are the main treatment options for your symptom (if it’s primary).

Secondary Cough Headache Treatments

Secondary cough headaches will generally require surgery to make the symptoms go away.

Unfortunately, preventative medicines won’t work. In some cases, someone with secondary cough headache will respond to medication.

However, this does not mean that they’ve got a primary type. Be sure to talk with your doctor about your potential treatment options.

Bottom Line: In most cases, a secondary cough headache can only be treated through surgery. Obviously, this treatment option comes with some risk.


cough headache prevention

If your head hurts when coughing, then there’s good news: it’s preventable. Here are some preventative measures you can take starting today:

  • Get an annual flu shot
  • Minimize heavy lifting
  • Don’t bend down for long periods of time
  • Stop taking medications that include coughing as a side effect
  • Eat more fiber (to avoid constipation).

As we mentioned earlier, straining can trigger your symptom. When you’re constipated, you often try to “force” the stool out.

This excess straining can lead to increased head pressure and pain. Also, by getting an annual flu shot, you decrease your chances of getting sick and coughing.

Finally, if a specific medication is causing you to cough a lot, talk to your doctor. They may be able to find you a replacement.

Bottom Line: The best way to minimize your symptoms starting today is to eat more fiber, don’t lift heavy things, and change medications that cause coughing.
Ask a Question: If you want to ask a medical doctor a question that hasn't been answered in one of our articles go to: Ask a Medical Doctor About your Symptoms

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