What You Need to Know About Head Pain and Coughs

A woman with brown hair and a grey and white shirt, coughing into the crook of her elbow
  • Experiencing pain while coughing may indicate a condition called cough headaches. These occur when pressure builds up in the skull.
  • This type of pain is uncommon. Only around 3 million people experience cough headaches.
  • Cough headaches can be primary or secondary, depending on the underlying conditions. Your healthcare provider can help you make sense of the head pain you’re experiencing.
  • These headaches often resolve on their own. However, there are several treatment options available. These include at-home remedies and medical treatments like physical therapy or surgery.

If you feel pain in your head while coughing, you might be experiencing a cough headache.

This combination is relatively uncommon, with only 1% — or 3 million people — of the population who will experience cough headaches in their lifetime.

Cough headaches are also more prevalent in individuals over the age of 40.

In this article, we’ll take a closer look at the causes, symptoms, and treatment options for different types of cough headaches.

Why Does My Head Hurt When I Cough?

If your head hurts when you cough, you are experiencing a cough headache. These are bouts of moderate to severe headache pain that can last for a few seconds to a few hours.

The exact cause of cough headaches isn't fully understood.

Most healthcare professionals agree that coughing increases the pressure in the chest and stomach. In turn, this causes pressure to build in the brain, which causes a headache.

These headaches may also be caused by other forms of straining, like:

  • Sneezing
  • Blowing your nose
  • Laughing or crying too hard
  • Bending over
  • Having a bowel movement
A man in a blue t-shirt coughing into his fist

Different Types of Cough Headaches

Before seeking treatment for your cough headache, it’s important first to be able to distinguish between the two types.

This will ensure that you get the correct medical care and that you rule out any underlying health conditions that could be causing your headache.

Primary cough headache

Primary cough headaches are the most common type. This headache is usually temporary and doesn’t cause any long-term issues.

A primary cough headache develops when the actual act of coughing causes pressure to build up in the skull.

This can cause a dull ache in the front of the head and may last for several hours.

Primary cough headaches usually resolve without treatment or when the coughing stops.

Secondary cough headache

Secondary cough headaches are more painful and severe than primary ones. Although the initial pain is also triggered by a cough, it may in this case indicate an underlying condition.

These conditions can be related to:

  • Brain defects
  • Structural issues
  • Brain tumors
  • Weakened brain blood vessels
  • Brain and spinal cord issues

Secondary cough headaches are often felt at the back of the head as a sharp or stabbing pain.

Medical treatment may be required to resolve a secondary cough headache.

What Are the Symptoms of Cough Headaches?

The symptoms of cough headaches vary slightly, depending on the type you are experiencing.

Common symptoms

  • Sudden pain immediately after coughing.
  • Sharp, stabbing, or explosive pain that progresses into a dull ache.
  • Pain is felt on both sides of the head. It may also feel worse in the front of your head.
  • Pain may last for several minutes to hours.

Severe symptoms

  • Severe pain in the back of the head.
  • Longer-lasting bouts of pain.
  • Feeling faint, dizzy, or off-balance.
  • Blurry vision.
  • Ringing in the ears or hearing loss.
  • Trembling.
Key Point: When Should You Seek Medical Attention?

Although cough headaches can disappear on their own, they are sometimes caused by an underlying condition.

It may be worth making an appointment with your doctor if you experience severe headache symptoms. This can help you get the proper diagnosis and treatment before your condition gets too serious.

If you have any of the following additional symptoms, it’s recommended that you seek medical attention as soon as possible:

  • A headache that lasts for longer than two hours.
  • Fever, chills, and unexplained weight loss.
  • Pain that worsens when you change your posture, like moving from lying down to standing.

How Are Cough Headaches Diagnosed?

A cough headache can usually be diagnosed by your general practitioner.

They will likely perform a physical examination before recommending additional diagnostic tests, like X-rays or CT scans.

These tests will help your health care provider to determine if your headaches are caused by an underlying condition, as well as what that condition might be.

Key Point: What is a Physical Exam?

A physical exam is a common method that doctors use to check your overall health. They may start by asking about the following:

  • Current medication you’re taking.
  • Symptoms you’re experiencing.
  • Medical test results.
  • Medical and surgical history.
  • Lifestyle habits like drinking alcohol or smoking.
  • Your height and weight.
  • If you have any implanted devices, like pacemakers or defibrillators.
  • Names and contact information of other doctors you’ve seen recently.

Once this part is completed, your healthcare provider will do a physical checkup. They will:

  • Feel the consistency, tenderness, and texture of individual organs.
  • Listen for abnormal sounds or heart rhythms in the chest with a stethoscope.
  • Check for fluids in areas where they shouldn’t be.
  • Take your pulse.

This may also be a good opportunity to ask your healthcare provider questions or to discuss any changes and problems you may have noticed.

What Are the Treatment Options for Cough Headaches?

There are many treatment options for cough headaches that can help you manage your symptoms. Let's take a look at what they are.

Home remedies

If you’re experiencing a primary or secondary cough headache, your doctor may prescribe medications and other at-home remedies to relieve symptoms.

Pharmaceutical remedies may include:

  • Over-the-counter medications like paracetamol or anti-inflammatories for pain relief.
  • Flu or allergy medication to relieve pressure in your head and reduce the symptoms of seasonal allergies that can cause a chronic cough.
  • Getting an annual flu shot to prevent illnesses that cause a cough.

Your doctor may also recommend the following practices to treat and prevent primary cough headaches:

  • Getting enough rest to help you heal and to strengthen your immune system.
  • Drinking plenty of fluids and soothing warm beverages — like tea with honey and lemon. This can also help reduce other symptoms like a sore throat and body aches.
  • Leading a healthy and balanced lifestyle to prevent illness.
A cup of tea with lemon and ginger.

Medical treatments

If your headaches are persistent or the symptoms are becoming too severe, you may need to seek professional medical treatment.

This often includes a combination of at-home remedies — like continuing to take pain medication — and other medical treatments — like surgical procedures.

Physical therapy

Your doctor may recommend physical therapy or making an appointment with a chiropractor.

Chiropractors are professionals who can treat conditions that affect the nervous system, like spine and joint dysfunctions.

They can be helpful in relieving pressure in your head that may be related to an inflammatory spinal condition.


If you’ve been diagnosed with secondary cough headaches, you may need to go for additional tests like X-rays and CT scans.

The tests will show if you have spinal cord issues — or something more severe like a brain tumor — that could increase the pressure in your head.

This can help your doctor to determine what’s making your head hurt and help you get the right treatment.

A man with dark hair and a dark beard lying down before going into a medical imaging machine.


Surgical procedures are usually reserved for treating secondary cough headaches. Some of the most common reasons for surgery are:

Chiari malformation: This is a brain disorder where the skull is misformed and doesn’t have enough space for the cerebellum — the part of your brain responsible for coordinating movement. This can cause a buildup of pressure in the skull.

A surgical procedure can be done to free up space in the skull to reduce pressure and relieve headaches.

Tumor removal: Secondary cough headaches caused by a brain tumor requires surgery to remove it. This surgery creates space where the tumor may have been pressing into the skull or against neighboring brain tissue.

Blood vessel repair: Some cough headaches are caused by a weakened blood vessel in the brain that needs to be repaired. These vessels can start to bulge, which can lead to an increase in pressure. Once it’s repaired, headache symptoms should subside.

Cerebrospinal fluid leak repair: Spinal fluid can start to leak from your spine for a couple of reasons, including a head or brain injury.

The first step to fix this may involve a spinal tap to decrease the pressure, where your doctor will insert a needle into the spinal column to drain excess fluid. Surgery might be required to repair the leak itself.


If your cough headaches are caused by a brain tumor, you’ll likely need to undergo chemotherapy to kill the fast-growing cells.

Chemo is usually given in cycles with a rest period between each treatment to give the body time to recover. Each cycle typically lasts for a couple of weeks.

Depending on the severity of your diagnosis, chemotherapy may be administered orally or through an IV drip.

Are You Worried About the Aching Pain in Your Head When You Cough?

Although cough headaches are uncommon, you may be one of the few people who experience head pain when coughing — especially when there’s a sudden pressure increase in the brain.

If you’re experiencing some of the symptoms we’ve covered in this article or you’re worried about your headaches or coughs, you can talk to a board-certified doctor right from home. Visit LifeMD to make your first appointment, and meet your doctor on your smartphone or computer. You'll be able to discuss your symptoms and work with your doctor on next steps.

Dr. Jonathan Guirguis

Dr. Guirguis attended Nova Southeastern University for medical school and stayed in South Florida to train in Internal Medicine. Born outside Chicago, he slowly made his way down south, settling in Texas with his wife and three children.

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This article is intended for informational purposes only and should not be considered medical advice. Consult a healthcare professional or call a doctor in the case of a medical emergency.

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