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What to know about COVID-19 and headache relief

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A headache is a common symptom of COVID-19. According to a 2021 review, estimates of the number of people with COVID-19 who experience headaches as a symptom of the disease range widely from 10% to 70%. In most cases, the headaches are tension-type headaches, although about 25% of people present with migraine-like symptoms.

The likelihood of experiencing a headache as a symptom of COVID-19 may also depend partly on the variant of the coronavirus causing it. Preliminary researchTrusted Source suggests that a headache is one of the most common symptoms that people with the Omicron variant of the virus experience.

A 2021 review notes that having a headache during a coronavirus infection is associated with a reduced risk of dying from COVID-19. However, the cause of this correlation remains unclear.

Medical treatments

COVID-19 is a relatively new disease, and doctors have not yet developed a specific treatment for the headaches it can cause. Instead, people must rely on standard headache remedies. The exact treatment will depend on the type of headache they experience.

Tension-type headaches

Most COVID-19 headaches are tension-type headaches. These headaches occur when muscular pain in the neck or shoulders radiates to the head. Pain medications can help ease muscular pain and headache pain.

Some medications that may relieve the symptoms includeTrusted Source:

ibuprofen (Advil)

naproxen (Aleve)

aspirin

acetaminophen (Tylenol)

combination headache medications, such as those containing aspirin, caffeine, and acetaminophen

Migraine headaches

Some people develop migraine headaches during or following coronavirus infection. MigraineTrusted Source is a neurological condition that typically causes a moderate to severe headache on one side of the head.

Other possible symptoms of migraine include:

sensitivity to light, sounds, or smells

changes in vision or other bodily sensations

nausea or vomiting

As with tension headaches, migraine headaches may respond to nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as naproxen, ibuprofen, and aspirin.

If the above drugs do not work, a doctor may prescribe one or more of the following medications:

antinausea medications

steroid medications, such as dexamethasone (DexPak)

prescription migraine medications, called triptans, which include:

sumatriptan (Imitrex)

eletriptan (Relpax)

almotriptan (Axert)

rizatriptan (Maxalt)

Preventive treatments can help reduce the frequency of migraine headaches. Some options include:

Beta-blockers

Antidepressants

topiramate (Topamax)

divalproex (Depakote)

Natural treatments

One of the most effective natural treatments for COVID-19-related headaches is identifying and avoiding potential triggers. Some common headache triggers during coronavirus infection include:

Lying in bed, which results in muscle pain and tension in the upper body

Dehydration resulting from a fever or being too tired to get food or water

Sleep deprivation

Stress

Tips to help prevent headache triggers include:

Stretching or massaging the muscles gently

Drinking plenty of water

Taking acetaminophen to help control a fever

Practicing meditation or mindfulness to help reduce stress levels and promote better sleep

Some natural headache remedies include:

Exercising Trusted Source, which may help with the following:

Reducing muscle pain and tension

Alleviating stress

Promoting sleep

Applying heat to tense muscles, which may help ease tension headache pain

Massaging tense muscles in the shoulders, neck, jaw, and back of the head

Having a warm shower or bath

Taking magnesium supplements, which may ease acute headaches and reduce the risk of chronic headaches

Avoiding the excessive consumption of caffeine

Headaches in long COVID

A headache is a common symptomTrusted Source of long COVID. Researchers do not yet understand why this is the case.

There is no specific treatment for long COVID or for the headaches it can cause. The same treatments that people use for other headaches may help alleviate long COVID headache pain. However, they may not stop the headaches from coming back.

People with long COVID and headaches should talk with a doctor about longer term treatment options, as well as the possibility of participating in clinical trials.

Other headache causes

Headaches are very common and do not necessarily indicate that a person has COVID-19. Even when a person with COVID-19 develops a headache, the disease may not be the cause.

In some cases, the headache may be a secondary symptom because, for instance, lying in bed has triggered a tension headache. In other cases, the headache may be completely unrelated to the coronavirus infection.

Although they are painful, most headachesTrusted Source are harmless and go away on their own. Examples includeTrusted Source:

Sinus headaches

Migraine headaches

Tension headaches

Cluster headaches

Headaches that are the result of:

Stress and anxiety

Dehydration

Drinking too much caffeine or withdrawal from caffeine

However, some headaches can signal a medical emergency. A headache with the following characteristics may signal a serious underlying medical condition, such as meningitis or stroke:

A very severe headache that comes on suddenly and is unlike any previous headache

A headache that occurs alongside other symptoms, such as:

Fever

Stiff neck

Skin rash

Double vision

Slurred speech

Confusion

Weakness or paralysis in one or both arms or on one side of the face

Seizures

Outlook

Most headaches go away on their own or following appropriate home treatment. People who have COVID-19-related headaches may find that the headaches become less severe or less frequent once their COVID-19 symptoms subside.

However, long COVID is common, especially among older COVID-19 survivors.

In one 2021 study, 57% of 273,618 COVID-19 survivors experienced at least one long COVID symptom up to 6 months after the initial infection. Among these individuals, 8.67% had a headache 1–180 days after COVID-19, and 4.63% had a headache 90–180 days after COVID-19.

The above data suggest that although the frequency of COVID-19-related headaches typically declines with time, some people may continue to experience headaches even 6 months after the infection.

Contacting a doctor

Most COVID-19-related headaches will resolve over time. However, a person who has COVID-19 or has previously had the coronavirus infection should speak with a doctor if they experience the following:

Symptoms of long COVID

Worsening headaches

A headache that lasts for several days and does not respond to home treatment

Severe, frequent, or persistent migraine attacks

Seeking emergency treatment

A headache can sometimes signal a medical emergency. A person should go to the emergency room or call 911 if they experience one or more of the following symptoms:

Very intense headache pain that is different from their usual headache pain

A thunderclap headache, which is an intense headache that comes on suddenly in less than 60 seconds

A severe headache that follows a popping sensation in the head

An intense headache following a blow to the head, fall, or accident

Accompanying symptoms, such as:

Confusion

Difficulty understanding language

Slurred speech

Difficulty with balance or coordination

Weakness in one side of the face or body

Loss of consciousness

Seizures

Summary

A headache is a common symptom of COVID-19. It may occur as a primary or secondary symptom of the disease. Headaches can also present as a symptom of long COVID.

The treatment for COVID-19-related headaches is the same as that for most headaches unrelated to the disease. Treatment options include over-the-counter or prescription pain relievers, along with natural treatments, such as gentle exercise, massage, and maintaining adequate hydration.

A person should speak with a doctor if they experience persistent or worsening headaches during or following a coronavirus infection.

Most headaches are harmless and disappear on their own or following appropriate treatment. However, some headaches can signal a serious and potentially life threatening medical issue. Anyone who experiences a sudden or severe headache that occurs alongside other concerning symptoms should seek emergency medical attention.

Source: Medical News Today

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