Primary and Secondary Cough Headaches

There are different types of cough headaches, and they're not equally serious. Learn more about them in this article.
Primary and Secondary Cough Headaches

Written by Edith Sánchez

Last update: 15 December, 2022

Cough headaches are usually the result of a prior physical problem. However, they aren’t always serious. These headaches happen either due to strain during an extremely dry cough or a persistent cough that’s been around for a while.

From a physical point of view, headaches caused by a cough are easy to explain. They happen because coughing generates pressure in the upper body, in areas such as the chest, neck, and head. So, repeated and frequent pressure there leads to headaches.

These kinds of headaches are of no concern for the most part. However, it’s always a good idea to discuss them with your doctor. This will allow you to rule out other serious problems and also to minimize their negative impacts on your body.

Primary and Secondary Cough Headaches

A woman with a headache.

Cough headaches aren’t very common. When they do occur, they’re usually connected to the effort you make when coughing or to other similar efforts such as sneezing, singing, blowing your nose, laughing, crying and even during bowel movements.

These kinds of headaches fall into two categories:

  • Primary headaches don’t happen often and, when they do, they last a short time. Besides, they improve spontaneously. They’re quite harmless, although more typical in people over 50 years of age. They range from moderate to intense and rarely last more than two hours. They may happen in any part of the head or above the neck.
  • Secondary headaches are due to brain problems. They’re dangerous and may require surgery. They’re due to an underlying disease. They could involve the presence of a tumor or a vascular disorder in the brain. This type of headache usually does not come exclusively from the cough but worsens when it occurs.

Main Causes

The exact reason why coughing can lead to a primary headache isn’t known yet. However, what we do know is it happens more frequently in smokers and in people who are allergic to pollen and other allergens.
Other causes of cough headaches may include:

  • Asthma sometimes leads to headaches, especially when the cough is dry. This type of cough causes intense intracranial pressure and triggers a headache. However, the pain disappears along with the asthmatic crisis.
  • Sinusitis causes pressure in the sinuses, and it often leads to headaches.
  • Also, swelling of the larynx or pharynx leads to cough and migraines.

The most common cause of secondary headaches from cough is called Chiari malformation type I, an anatomical abnormality.

Other possible causes are brain tumors and other malformations. Also, weakness in the blood vessels and/or spontaneous loss of cerebrospinal fluid may cause them.

The Symptoms of Cough Headaches

A person with a headache.

Primary headaches suddenly begin after coughing and they lead to sharp, intense pain. However, they don’t last long. In fact, they seldom last longer than two hours. The most important thing to keep in mind is to evaluate if they bring additional symptoms along such as nausea, photosensitivity, and tearing, which may lead to migraines.

Secondary headaches have similar symptoms but different characteristics. These may include unsteadiness, dizziness, and fainting. They also last longer.

There may be brain injury if cough headaches occur in people younger than 50, especially if the discomfort is located in the neck area. That’s why it’s important to see a doctor as soon as possible.

Read: Incredible Natural Remedies to Relieve Headaches

Diagnosis and Prevention

Diagnosis is made from clinical history and an individual’s report. It takes into account relevant factors such as age, gender (primary headaches are more frequent in men) and the presence of concomitant diseases such as asthma or sinusitis.

A doctor is very likely to order tests such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and/or computed tomography (CT) scanning. These tests will confirm or rule out other possible causes of a headache.

The best way to prevent primary cough headaches is to treat all of your respiratory conditions. The presence of pharyngitis, bronchitis, asthma, and sinusitis, among others, will lead to coughing and a headache might follow. It’s also important to avoid strenuous efforts.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Fernández Concepción, O., & Pando Cabrera, A. (1999). Diagnóstico de las cefaleas. Revista Cubana de Medicina General Integral, 15(5), 555-561.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.