12 Reasons: Why Does My Head Hurt When I Cough (2024)?

When the body experiences imbalances, cough headaches might emerge. Which might lead you to ask “Why does my head hurt when I cough?”

Why Does My Head Hurt When I Cough
Photo by Towfiqu barbhuiya

So to help you understand what cough headaches mean, let’s dive into the top reasons your head hurts when you cough plus how you can manage it.

Reasons To Why Does My Head Hurt When I Cough

The reasons why your head aches when you cough fall under these two main types of cough headaches:

  • The primary cough headache also known as benign cough headache is usually brought by coughing too hard, straining your face and abdomen through laughing, crying, lifting heavy weights (hence the name Valsalva maneuver headache), sneezing, a bowel movement, and other bodily actions. Primary cough headaches are typically harmless and usually fade away shortly (from a few minutes to a day) as long as the trigger diminishes.
  • The secondary cough headache is more serious and can be even life-threatening since it’s caused by deeper issues like Chiari malformation, cerebrospinal fluid leakage, and brain tumors among others. It usually comes on more frequently and lasts longer than the primary cough headache. Most symptoms of a secondary cough headache include more unusual reactions like bloody fluid coming out of the ears and nose.

With that summary out of the way, let’s take a closer look at each reason.

1. You Have A Cold

When having a cold, your body can strain in various ways like with a congested nose, a runny nose, sore throat, and sneezing which can all cause a primary headache. 

You’ll possibly cough to deal with the irritants which causes a strain in the abdomen and as a result bring head pain.

2. You Have A Flu

In addition to the irritation of cold symptoms, the flu can bring body strain in the form of chills, body aches, fatigue, high fever, and nasal irritation which can combine to cause head pain every time you cough.

Flu cough headaches as severe as they are still aren’t secondary cough headaches though. As the flu diminishes, the cough headaches will reduce too. So if you’re having a cough headache while experiencing flu, a flu shot could be your easy remedy.

3. You’re Having Allergic Reactions

Allergies are also one of the common causes of primary cough headaches. When you’re allergic to something, it can cause swelling of respiratory parts like the nose which builds up pressure and causes coughs and headaches.

Think about the situations you get these cough headaches. Do they involve something you’re allergic to? If they do, then this is your answer to “Why does my head hurt when I cough.”

4. You Exerted Your Body Too Much

Overexertion causes inflammations which increase pressure in the body and also the brain, causing cough headaches as a result.

Whether it’s about lifting weights or too much cardio exercise, it can lead to primary cough headaches. And if you continually push your body too far for long periods, you might get deeper complications enough to cause secondary cough headaches.

5. You’re Dehydrated

Most people ask “Are cough headaches common?” fearing that the aching pain in their head when they cough is something a few unfortunate people experience. But this isn’t true given how many people stay dehydrated for so long.

Dehydration not only causes a dry mouth and throat but also promotes the buildup of mucus in the airways. This in turn can bring severe coughs accompanied by headaches.

While you might take cough drops to get rid of the coughing, it might not stop because the root cause is still undealt with. You’ll also notice other symptoms signaling dehydration. In such cases, take plenty of fluids and visit your doctor for a check up.

6. You Have A Head Injury

Ever had a head injury? This could be the underlying cause of your primary or secondary cough headache – depending on the severity of the injury.

Head injuries cause fractures, bleeding, and brain damage which can bring imbalances in pressure as well as cerebrospinal fluid leakages that subsequently cause cough headaches.

7.  You Have Chiari Malformations

Chiari malformations are structural dysfunctionalities in the cerebellum which is the part of the brain that controls balance. These malformations happen when the cerebellum space is smaller or of irregular shape, forcing the brain tissue to press downward on the spinal cord.

A Chiari malformation can be a congenital or acquired brain disorder through head injury or disease. So if you’re experiencing persistent stabbing pain in your head when you cough, consider visiting a healthcare provider for a deeper consultation.

8. You Have A Brain Tumor

Brain tumors can cause persistent secondary cough headaches. The brain tumor might be cancerous (spreading to other parts of the body) or benign(one that grows only in the brain).

Either way, a brain tumor can bring several imbalances to the brain hence causing sharp or stabbing pain in your head whenever you cough. That’s why you need to check in with your doctor when a cough headache doesn’t go away.

9. You Took Medications That Cause You To Cough

Primary cough headaches caused by drugs aren’t common. But many have reported being triggered to cough by drugs like leflumide and lisinopril.

Photo by Gustavo Fring

When you take drugs that have coughing as a side effect, you might cough to the extent of experiencing headaches. You could easily spot this if your cough headaches started when you started using a certain drug. To avoid all this:

  • You can ask your doctor to prescribe medications that don’t make you cough.
  • Or choose to finish your dose and get your body back to normal.

10. You Have Brain Aneurysm

A brain aneurysm also known as cerebral aneurysm can be an underlying health condition as to why your head aches when you cough. It’s one of the most fatal brain health conditions arising from weakened brain blood vessels which bulge and fill with blood.

The weakened blood vessel can leak or rupture to cause life-threatening bleeding known as hemorrhagic stroke. But even if the brain aneurysm isn’t ruptured, it can cause you the worst secondary cough headache pain due to pressure irregularities in the brain.

11. Your Cerebrospinal Fluid Pressure Has Changed

Cerebro-spinal fluid or CSF is a colorless fluid that circulates your brain and spinal cord (your central nervous system). It’s one of the main determinants of how you do anything so if its pressure shifts abnormally, you experience headaches that range from a dull ache to stabbing pain in the head and face.

Causes of sudden pressure changes in the CSF are widely unknown but some triggers include head injury or leakage. If your secondary cough headache is caused by a CSF leak, you’d probably notice these severe symptoms:

  • Double vision and blurred vision among other vision problems
  • Watery liquid or blood coming out of your nose

But before you panic out of measure, you need to know that not all CSF leaks are life-threatening. Some only need bed rest and hydration to relieve pressure in the brain and cause the leak to close up on its own.

However, you need to visit a doctor to check you out for a CSF leak before advising you on treatment options.

12. You’ve Coughed Too Much

It’s often as simple as this, especially with primary cough headaches.

When you have a chronic cough, you’d mainly start feeling head pain. So the next time you’re having a cough headache, find the underlying condition behind the cough to know the reason why your head hurts when you cough.

How To Relieve Head Pressure From Coughing

You can reduce head pressure from coughing and alleviate cough headaches by:

  • Reducing inflammation by taking anti-inflammatory drugs
  • Removing excess fluid and salt in the body with diuretics
  • Reducing pressure exerted on the abdomen by taking sufficient water and fiber to ensure smoother bowel movements
  • Avoiding medications you’re allergic to and also those with coughing as the side effect
  • Managing seasonal allergies accordingly
  • Finding at-home remedies that help relieve pressure in the body (Warm beverages such as hot tea are a great help)
  • Avoiding strenuous body posture and exertion
  • Taking steps to maintain hydration and reduce inflammation among other healthy body practices to bring your body to a balance

How Long Do Cough Headaches Last

Primary and secondary cough headaches start spontaneously during or after coughing. The initial pain can develop into a dull ache or diminish in seconds or after a few hours depending on the underlying cause of the head pain. Primary headaches resolve on their own but a secondary headache needs comprehensive treatment.

Final Word

Primary cough headaches and secondary cough headaches are the only types of cough headaches known today. Although they have a thin line of symptoms separating them, an expert medical professional can know the type you might be suffering from.

For the most part, cough headaches are nothing to worry about since all have remedies to eliminate them. And to avoid them, eat healthily, exercise mindfully, and stay positive. 

About The Author

Bijan Kholghi is a certified life coach with the Milton Erickson Institute Heidelberg (Germany). He helps clients and couples reach breakthroughs in their lives by changing subconscious patterns. His solution-oriented approach is based on Systemic- and Hypnotherapy.