Unravelling the Mystery: Why Does My Head Hurt When I Cough?

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Experiencing a headache when coughing is a relatively common phenomenon, yet it can be both alarming and uncomfortable. Known as cough headaches, these are typically brief but intense bouts of pain that occur immediately after coughing. This blog post explores why does my head hurt when i cough, types, and treatment options, helping you understand this discomfort and when it might be a sign of something more serious.

Understanding Cough Headaches

Cough headaches are triggered by specific actions such as coughing, sneezing, laughing, crying, or any activity that can lead to a sudden increase in intra-abdominal and intrathoracic pressure. This pressure translates to the head, but the exact mechanism behind why it leads to a headache remains somewhat elusive. There are two types of cough headaches: primary and secondary. Each has distinct characteristics and implications for your health.

Primary Cough Headaches

Primary cough headaches are benign and more common. These headaches are thought to be related to pressure changes within the brain that occur during coughing. So, why does my head hurt when i cough? The sudden and forceful abdominal pressure increase during a cough is transmitted to the thoracic cavity and then to the veins in the brain, temporarily altering cerebral blood flow.

Symptoms of Primary Cough Headaches:

  • Sudden onset of pain with coughing
  • Sharp, stabbing pain lasting a few seconds to a few minutes
  • Pain typically occurs on both sides of the head
  • May be followed by a dull, aching pain lasting up to an hour

Secondary Cough Headaches

Secondary cough headaches are less common but more concerning as they can be symptomatic of underlying problems. These headaches are caused by abnormalities in the brain or issues within the structures at the base of the skull. Conditions such as a brain tumour, cysts, or malformations of the cerebellum (like Chiari malformation) can trigger these headaches. Secondary cough headaches may require immediate medical attention.

Symptoms of Secondary Cough Headaches:

  • Longer-lasting pain than primary cough headaches
  • Pain may be accompanied by other symptoms like dizziness, balance problems, or fainting
  • Symptoms are more likely to be one-sided
  • Could be associated with other alarming signs like changes in vision or ringing in the ears

Diagnostic Approach

If you are wondering why does my head hurt when i cough and particularly if the pain is severe, persistent, or associated with other symptoms, consulting a healthcare provider is crucial. Doctors typically start with a detailed medical history and a physical examination. Imaging studies such as an MRI or CT scan of the brain might be recommended to rule out secondary causes.

Management and Treatment

The treatment of cough headaches varies depending on their type. Effective management and treatment not only alleviate symptoms but also reduce the duration and prevent potential complications. Here’s a comprehensive guide on how to manage and treat coughs and colds.

Understanding Coughs and Colds

Coughs and colds are primarily caused by viruses, with the rhinovirus being the most common culprit for the common cold. Symptoms include a runny or blocked nose, sore throat, cough, congestion, slight body aches, sneezing, and low-grade fever. Since these are viral infections, antibiotics are ineffective as a treatment. Management focuses on relieving symptoms and supporting the body’s immune response.

Symptom Management

1. Hydration: Keeping hydrated is crucial when dealing with a cough or cold. Fluids help thin mucus, making it easier to expel and alleviating congestion. Water, juice, clear broths, and warm lemon water with honey are excellent choices.

2. Rest: Adequate rest is vital for recovery. It helps the body direct its energy towards fighting off the virus. Ensuring sufficient sleep at night and relaxing throughout the day can speed up recovery.

3. Humidifiers: Using a humidifier adds moisture to the air, which can help loosen congestion and alleviate the dryness in the throat and nasal passages. Clean the humidifier regularly to prevent the growth of mold and bacteria.

4. Over-the-Counter (OTC) Medications: While they won’t cure the cold, OTC medications can significantly alleviate symptoms. Decongestants such as pseudoephedrine can reduce nasal congestion, while cough suppressants (antitussives like dextromethorphan) and expectorants (such as guaifenesin) can manage the cough. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), like ibuprofen or acetaminophen, can help with pain relief and fever reduction.

5. Throat Remedies: For a sore throat, lozenges and sore throat sprays can provide temporary relief. Gargling with warm salt water is an effective home remedy to soothe throat pain.

Natural Remedies

In addition to conventional medicine, many people find relief in natural remedies:

  • Honey and Ginger: Honey has antibacterial properties and can provide a soothing coating for an irritated throat. Ginger can help with nausea and inflammation. Mixing a tablespoon of honey with some ginger in hot tea can be soothing.
  • Vitamin C: While its effectiveness in preventing colds remains debated, Vitamin C can boost the immune system and slightly reduce the duration of a cold. Citrus fruits, green peppers, strawberries, and tomatoes are excellent sources.

Preventive Measures

While some causes of cough headaches are not preventable, managing symptoms that lead to coughing, such as respiratory infections or allergies, can help. Here are some tips:

  • Treat colds, flu, and allergies promptly to minimise coughing bouts.
  • Stay hydrated and use humidifiers to ease coughing from dry air.
  • Practise good hygiene to avoid infections that could lead to coughing.
  • If allergic to certain environments or substances, avoid them or use allergy medication as prescribed.

When to See a Doctor?

While most coughs and colds do not require medical attention, there are situations where consulting a healthcare provider is advisable. These include:

  • Symptoms lasting more than 10 days without improvement.
  • Severe symptoms, such as high fever, severe pain, or difficulty breathing.
  • Symptoms that return or worsen suddenly, which could indicate a bacterial infection or another underlying condition.


While often not serious, a headache when coughing can sometimes indicate a more severe condition. Understanding why does my head hurt when i cough and the nature of your headache, especially if it occurs frequently or is severe, is really important. Monitoring the symptoms and discussing them with your healthcare provider will help ensure proper diagnosis and treatment. Remember, when it comes to health, being informed and proactive is your best defence.

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Manoj Kumar