Cough Headaches: Causes, Risk Factors, Symptoms, Treatment

Cough Headaches

Cough headaches are headaches triggered by coughing, characterized by a sudden, sharp pain in the head upon coughing. They are typically bilateral and short-lived but can be intense. Primary cough headaches occur without an underlying condition and are often benign. Secondary cough headaches may indicate an underlying problem such as a structural issue in the brain. Preventive measures include avoiding triggers like sudden movements or straining during coughing, treating underlying causes, and seeking medical evaluation if headaches are severe or persistent.

If you're experiencing headaches triggered by coughing or have risk factors, consulting with a Neurologist is crucial for accurate diagnosis and tailored management.


The exact cause of cough headaches is not fully understood, but they are believed to be related to increased pressure in the brain or spinal fluid. Possible causes include:

Benign Intracranial Hypertension (BIH): Increased pressure of cerebrospinal fluid within the skull can lead to cough headaches.

Chiari Malformation: A structural defect in the base of the skull where the cerebellum extends into the spinal canal, causing pressure on the brainstem.

Brain Tumors or Lesions: Growth or abnormalities in the brain can cause increased pressure within the skull, leading to cough headaches.

Arteriovenous Malformation (AVM): Abnormal connections between arteries and veins in the brain can disrupt blood flow and increase pressure.

Sinusitis: Inflammation or infection of the sinuses can cause increased pressure in the head, triggering cough headaches.

Trigeminal Neuralgia: Compression or irritation of the trigeminal nerve, which controls facial sensation, can lead to cough headaches.

Medication Side Effects: Certain medications, particularly those that affect blood pressure or brain function, may trigger cough headaches as a side effect.

Structural Abnormalities: Any condition that affects the structure of the brain, skull, or spinal cord can potentially lead to cough headaches.

Risk Factors

Risk factors for cough headaches, also known as exertional headaches, include:

Age: Cough headaches are more common in individuals over the age of 40.

Sex: Men are more likely to experience cough headaches than women.

Medical Conditions: Certain medical conditions such as Chiari malformation, a structural defect in the base of the skull, and other disorders affecting the brain or spinal cord can increase the risk of cough headaches.

Family History: A family history of cough headaches or other types of primary headaches may predispose individuals to experiencing them.

Physical Activity: Activities that involve sudden changes in intracranial pressure, such as coughing, sneezing, or straining during bowel movements, can trigger cough headaches.

Lifestyle Factors: Smoking, obesity, and a sedentary lifestyle may also contribute to the risk of developing cough headaches.

Medications: Certain medications, such as those used to treat high blood pressure, can potentially trigger or exacerbate cough headaches.

Underlying Conditions: People with underlying conditions such as migraine or tension headaches may be more prone to experiencing cough headaches.

Genetics: There may be a genetic predisposition to cough headaches, although more research is needed to fully understand this aspect.


Sudden Head Pain: A sharp or stabbing headache occurs suddenly with each coughing episode.

Location of Pain: Headache typically occurs at the back of the head, near the base of the skull.

Duration: Headaches are brief, lasting from a few seconds to a few minutes, usually subsiding after the coughing episode ends.

Associated Symptoms: Some individuals may experience additional symptoms such as dizziness, lightheadedness, or fainting (syncope) during or immediately after coughing.

Intensity: Headaches can range from mild discomfort to severe pain, often described as explosive or bursting in nature.

Triggers: Coughing, straining, laughing, or bending over can trigger cough headaches.

Frequency: Headaches may occur sporadically or become more frequent over time, depending on the underlying cause.

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The diagnosis process typically includes:

Medical History: The doctor will ask about the frequency, duration, and characteristics of the headaches, as well as any associated symptoms such as coughing, sneezing, or straining.

Physical Examination: A physical exam may be performed to assess neurological function and check for any signs of underlying conditions.

Imaging Tests: Imaging studies such as MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) or CT (Computed Tomography) scans may be ordered to rule out structural abnormalities in the brain, such as tumors or bleeding.

Lumbar Puncture (Spinal Tap): In some cases, a lumbar puncture may be performed to measure the pressure of the cerebrospinal fluid and rule out conditions such as intracranial hypotension (low pressure in the skull).

Evaluation of Coughing Episodes: If coughing triggers the headaches, the doctor may observe and evaluate coughing episodes to better understand the relationship between the cough and the headache.

Other Tests: Additional tests may be ordered based on the individual's symptoms and medical history to rule out other potential causes of headaches.


Here are some common approaches:

Pain Medications: Over-the-counter pain relievers such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen can help alleviate headache pain.

Headache Prevention Medications: If cough headaches are frequent or severe, preventive medications such as indomethacin may be prescribed by a doctor.

Treatment of Underlying Conditions: If cough headaches are secondary to an underlying condition such as a Chiari malformation or a brain tumor, treatment of the underlying cause is necessary. This may involve surgery or other medical interventions.

Lifestyle Changes: Avoiding activities that trigger coughing, such as heavy lifting or straining, may help reduce the frequency and severity of cough headaches.

Relaxation Techniques: Practicing relaxation techniques such as deep breathing exercises or meditation may help reduce headache frequency and intensity.

Fluid Intake: Staying well-hydrated can help reduce the severity of cough headaches, as dehydration can exacerbate headache symptoms.

Physical Therapy: For individuals with musculoskeletal issues contributing to cough headaches, physical therapy may help improve posture and strengthen neck and shoulder muscles, reducing strain during coughing episodes.

Preventive Measures

Preventive measures for cough headaches, also known as primary cough headaches, aim to minimize their occurrence and severity:

Manage Underlying Conditions: Treat any underlying conditions such as migraines or Chiari malformation that may contribute to cough headaches.

Avoid Trigger Foods and Beverages: Identify and avoid foods and beverages that may trigger headaches, such as alcohol, caffeine, and certain additives like MSG.

Stay Hydrated: Drink plenty of water throughout the day to prevent dehydration, which can exacerbate cough headaches.

Practice Proper Coughing Techniques: Learn and practice proper coughing techniques to minimize the strain on the head and neck muscles.

Use Supportive Measures: Employ supportive measures such as wearing a neck brace or using pillows to support the head and neck while coughing.

Manage Medications: If cough headaches are triggered by medication, consult with a healthcare professional to adjust dosage or switch to alternative medications.

Stress Reduction: Practice stress-reduction techniques such as meditation, deep breathing exercises, or yoga to lower overall stress levels, which may help prevent cough headaches.

Regular Exercise: Engage in regular physical activity to improve overall health and strengthen muscles, potentially reducing the likelihood of cough headaches.

Maintain a Healthy Diet: Eat a balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins to support overall health and potentially reduce the frequency of cough headaches.

Seek Medical Evaluation: If cough headaches persist or worsen despite preventive measures, seek medical evaluation to rule out any underlying conditions and explore additional treatment options.

Do's & Don’t's

When it comes to dealing with cough headaches, it is important to know the do's and don'ts to effectively manage and alleviate this discomforting condition. 

Do's Don't 
Seek medical advice for recurring or severe cough headaches.  Don't ignore persistent symptoms or self-diagnose without consulting a healthcare professional. 
Manage cough symptoms by staying hydrated, avoiding triggers, and following prescribed treatments.  Avoid excessive use of over-the-counter pain medications without medical supervision. 
Practice relaxation techniques like deep breathing or meditation to reduce headache intensity.  Try not to engage in activities that trigger or exacerbate cough headaches, such as strenuous physical activities. 

If you're experiencing headaches triggered by coughing or have risk factors, consulting with a Neurologist is crucial for accurate diagnosis and tailored management.

Frequently Asked Questions
Cough headaches are a type of headache that occurs immediately after coughing or any other activity that increases pressure in the head, such as sneezing or laughing. These headaches can range from mild to severe and typically last for a few seconds to a few minutes.
The exact cause of cough headaches is not fully understood. However, it is believed that the sudden increase in pressure within the skull during activities like coughing triggers the pain response.
Yes, there are two primary types of cough headaches: primary and secondary. Primary cough headaches are usually harmless and occur spontaneously without any underlying medical condition. Secondary cough headaches, on the other hand, may be associated with an underlying health issue such as a brain tumor or structural abnormalities in the brain.
Treatment options for cough headaches depend on their cause and severity. In some cases, over-the-counter pain relievers may help alleviate symptoms temporarily. However, it is important to consult with a healthcare professional for an accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment plan.
If you experience severe or persistent headache episodes after every bout of coughing, it is recommended to seek medical attention promptly. Additionally, if your headache is accompanied by other concerning symptoms such as changes in vision or loss of consciousness, immediate medical evaluation is necessary.
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