Often triggered by coughing and other types of straining, these headaches can be harmless or signal another problem in the brain.
Cough headaches are a type of head pain triggered by coughing and other types of straining. This may include sneezing, blowing your nose, laughing, crying, singing, bending over or having a bowel movement.
Cough headaches are fairly uncommon. There are two types: primary cough headaches and secondary cough headaches. Primary cough headaches are usually harmless, are caused only by coughing and get better quickly without treatment. A primary cough headache is diagnosed only when a provider has ruled out possible causes other than coughing.
A secondary cough headache may be triggered by a cough, but it is caused by problems with the brain or structures near the brain and spine. Secondary cough headaches can be more serious and may require treatment with surgery.
Anyone who has a cough headache for the first time should see their health care provider. The provider can determine whether a cough or something else caused the pain.
Symptoms of cough headaches:
Secondary cough headaches often present with only a cough headache, but you may also experience:
A cough headache only happens right after coughing. Other headache pain is not a cough headache if you already had a headache when you coughed, or if you have a headache condition such as migraine. For example, people with migraine might find that their headaches get worse when they cough. This is normal, and not a cough headache.
Consult your doctor or health care provider if you experience sudden headaches after coughing — especially if the headaches are new, frequent or severe or you have any other troubling signs or symptoms, such as imbalance or blurred or double vision.
The cause of primary cough headaches is unknown.
Secondary cough headaches may be caused by:
Sometimes, what is first diagnosed as a cough headache may be caused by a cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) leak. Coughing or straining may trigger the headache, but the underlying cause is the CSF leak. This is one of the reasons why it's important to see your provider for a new cough headache.
Risk factors for cough headaches vary widely based on the type and cause of the headache.
After talking with your provider, here are some tips to prevent actions that trigger your cough headaches — whether that's coughing, sneezing or straining while using the toilet. This may help reduce the number of headaches you experience. Some preventive measures may include:
While these steps may help prevent a cough headache, any headache related to coughing or straining should always be checked by your provider.
Your doctor may recommend brain-imaging tests, such as MRI or CT scans, to rule out other possible causes for your headaches.
Treatment differs, depending on whether you have primary or secondary cough headaches.
If you have a history of primary cough headaches, your doctor may recommend that you take daily medication to help prevent or reduce the pain.
These preventive medications may include:
Other medications used to treat primary cough headache include methysergide, naproxen sodium (Aleve), methylergonovine, intravenous dihydroergotamine (D.H.E. 45) and phenelzine (Nardil).
If you have secondary cough headaches, surgery is often needed to fix the underlying problem. Preventive medications usually don't help people who have secondary cough headaches. However, responding to medication doesn't necessarily mean that you have a primary cough headache.
You're likely to start by seeing your family doctor or a general practitioner. However, in some cases when you call to set up an appointment, you may be referred immediately to a neurologist.
Because appointments can be brief, and because there's often a lot of ground to cover, it's a good idea to be well prepared for your appointment. Here's some information to help you get ready for your appointment, and know what to expect from your doctor.
Your time with your provider is limited, so preparing a list of questions will help you make the most of your time together. For cough headaches, some basic questions to ask include:
Your doctor or provider is likely to ask you a number of questions. Being ready to answer them may reserve time to go over any points you want to spend more time on. Your provider may ask: