Definition

What are cough headaches?

Cough headaches are an unusual type of headache triggered by coughing and other types of straining — such as from sneezing, blowing your nose, laughing, crying, singing, bending over or having a bowel movement.

Doctors divide cough headaches into two categories. Primary cough headaches are usually harmless, occur in limited episodes and eventually improve on their own. Secondary cough headaches are more serious, as they can be caused by problems within the brain. Treatment of secondary cough headaches may require surgery.

How common are cough headaches?

Some clinical studies have shown that men are four times more likely to suffer from cough headaches as women. Most cough headaches don’t appear until after age 40. Please discuss with your doctor for further information.

Symptoms

What are the symptoms of cough headaches?

The common symptoms of cough headaches are:

  • Pain on both sides of the head
  • Head pain starts suddenly after cough or other trigger
  • Lasts a very short period of time, sometimes only one minute

There may be some symptoms not listed above. If you have any concerns about a symptom, please consult your doctor.

When should I see my doctor?

If you have any signs or symptoms listed above or have any questions, please consult with your doctor. Everyone’s body acts differently. It is always best to discuss with your doctor what is best for your situation.

Causes

What causes cough headaches?

Harmless, primary cough headaches are believed to be caused by increased pressure in the head that comes from coughing and other types of strain. This pressure increase is called the Valsalva’s maneuver, which is sometimes done deliberately by closing the mouth, pinching the nose and breathing out. It is done to equalize pressure in the ear, for example, if pressure builds while flying. However, there is the risk of applying too much pressure to the middle ear and causing damage. Cough headaches appear similar to migraines triggered by physical activity and to exertion headaches.

Risk factors

What increases my risk for cough headaches?

There are many risk factors for primary cough headaches, such as:

  • Primary cough headaches most often affect people older than age 40.
  • Men are more prone to getting primary cough headaches.

Risk factors for secondary cough headaches include:

  • Being younger than age 40

Diagnosis & treatment

The information provided is not a substitute for any medical advice. ALWAYS consult with your doctor for more information.

How is cough headaches diagnosed?

Your doctor may recommend brain-imaging tests, such as MRI or CT scans, to rule out other possible causes for your headaches.

  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). During an MRI, a magnetic field and radio waves are used to create cross-sectional images of the structures within your head to determine any problems that may be causing your cough headache.
  • Computerized tomography (CT) scan. These scans use a computer to create cross-sectional images of your brain and head by combining images from an X-ray unit that rotates around your body.

How is cough headaches treated?

Treatment differs, depending on whether you have primary or secondary cough headaches.

Primary cough headache

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:

  • Indomethacin (Indocin, Tivorbex), an anti-inflammatory drug
  • Propranolol (Inderal, Innopran XL), a medication that relaxes blood vessels and reduces blood pressure
  • Acetazolamide (Diamox), a diuretic that reduces the amount of spinal fluid, which can reduce the pressure inside the skull

Other medications used to treat primary cough headache include methysergide, naproxen (Naprosyn), ergonovine, intravenous dihydroergotamine (D.H.E. 45) and phenelzine (Nardil).

Rarely, a spinal tap (lumbar puncture) may be recommended. With this procedure, the doctor removes some of the fluid that surrounds your brain and spinal cord. This may help reduce the pressure inside your skull that may be causing the headaches.

Secondary cough headache

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.

Lifestyle changes & home remedies

What are some lifestyle changes or home remedies that can help me manage cough headaches?

The following lifestyles and home remedies might help you cope with cough headaches:

  • Treating lung infections, such as bronchitis
  • Avoiding medications that cause coughing as a side effect
  • Getting an annual flu shot
  • Using stool softeners to avoid constipation
  • Minimizing heavy lifting or bending for long periods

If you have any questions, please consult with your doctor to better understand the best solution for you.

Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

Review Date: September 28, 2017 | Last Modified: September 28, 2017

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