Cough Headache – Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment

It is an unusual type of headache caused by any sort of straining for example coughing, sneezing, blowing the nose, etc. A cough headache is classified mainly into two categories; Primary cough headache and secondary cough headache. In the primary, pain is usually felt on both sides of the head and forehead whereas in secondary, pain is felt at the back of the head and neck. A cough headache typically lasts a few seconds to a few hours with an abrupt onset.

Symptoms of primary cough headache

  • Usually sharp and stabbing in character.
  • Affects both sides of the head but can also occur on one side.
  • Has an abrupt onset and it goes away within a few minutes.
  • The intensity of pain ranges from moderate-to-severe.
  • There are no other symptoms like nausea, photophobia, runny nose, or watery eyes.

Symptoms of secondary cough headache

Typically has serious symptoms

  • Dizziness
  • Blurred vision
  • Loss of coordination
  • Unconsciousness

Causes of primary cough headache

Cough headache with the primary cause can be just due to exertion as the pressure in the chest and abdomen increases upon coughing which can increase the pressure in the brain and cause a headache.

Causes of secondary cough headache

A secondary headache can indicate a more serious underlying condition, such as:

  • A condition named chiari malformation type 1: In this condition, the skull is shaped in such a way that the lower part of the brain named cerebellum forces itself into the spinal canal, cerebellum, is part of the brain responsible for maintaining balance.
  • Cerebrospinal fluid leakage or blockage, which is responsible for changes in CSF pressure.
  • An aneurysm in the brain, That is the weakness of the blood vessel wall.
  • Brain tumor

People at-risk

  • Primary headache is most common in people older than 40 years of age.
  • Secondary headache is most commonly caused due to chiari malformation which shows up at an early age.


  • The physician might require a proper history of your symptoms to form the final diagnosis.
  • If the pain is abrupt in onset and goes away within minutes it is a primary headache and is nothing to worry about.
  • If the headache has other associated symptoms, the doctor might suggest getting an MRI or CT scan done.

Treatment for primary headache

  • Indomethacin: for inflammation.
  • In some cases, a spinal tap can also be done to relieve the pressure around your brain which may be causing a headache.

Treatment for secondary headache

  • Chiari malformation: indomethacin for pain relief.
  • For a secondary headache, the underlying cause has to be treated.


  • Try to avoid the triggers
  • Treat infections such a sore throat which cause frequent coughs.
  • Use a stool softener for constipation.
  • Avoid lifting heavy weights as it can also cause exertion.

When to consult a doctor?

If your headache doesn’t go away in two hours and is accompanied by other symptoms mainly dizziness, nausea, and photophobia you should consult a doctor as soon as possible.


Why do I feel headache every time I cough?

As the pressure in the chest and abdomen increases upon coughing it also increases the pressure in the brain and cause a headache.

Why is spinal tap causing me cough headache?

A spinal tap may cause leakage of CSF that can be responsible for minute pressure changes around the brain which are normally ignored. These pressure changes cause headaches upon coughing.

I get nausea along a cough headache, what can be the possible causes?

  • You can have CSF leakage if you recently got a spinal tap.
  • An aneurysm in the Brain
  • Chiari malformation
  • Brain tumor

How long does a cough headache last?

It normally goes away within minutes but a dull pain usually follows for a couple of hours.

Last medically reviewed on August 29, 2022.