What to Know About COVID Headaches
When you think about COVID-19 symptoms, you likely picture someone with respiratory symptoms and a fever. But COVID can affect many parts of your body—including blood vessels, the brain, and the heart—and can even lead to organ damage, heart attacks, and strokes. Here we focus on one of the most common symptoms: a COVID headache.
COVID headaches can be debilitating at times, and may even last beyond the acute phase of infection. In fact, people who suffer from long COVID may experience COVID headaches for weeks or even months.
Read on for more information about COVID headaches, including how common they are, what it’s like to experience them, how long they typically last, and how you can treat them.
Is Headache a Symptom of COVID?
Headaches are a COVID symptom, along with fever, cough, fatigue, congestion, a new loss of taste and smell, and others. A 2021 study estimated that headaches are a symptom in 10–70% of COVID infections.
Some studies have looked at the prevalence of headaches during different periods of the pandemic. A 2022 study published in Headache: The Journal of Head and Face Pain found that COVID headaches were common during the period when the Original, Alpha, and Delta variants were dominant. However, headaches became most prominent during the Delta variant phase. In all cases, headaches were persistent past the initial infection period 5–10% of the time.
Another study, published in BMJ in 2021, presented data about headache prevalence during the initial period of the Omicron phase. This study found that headache was one of the most prominent symptoms of Omicron, along with runny nose and fatigue.
Risk Factors for COVID Headaches
Anyone can get a headache during a COVID infection, but some people may be at higher risk of developing headaches, including those:
- With a prior history of headaches before COVID infection
- Who are dehydrated
- Who experience fevers
- With comorbidities
What Does a COVID Headache Feel Like?
Most people who get COVID headaches experience symptoms within the first few days of infection. For some, a headache may be one of the first signs that they have COVID. Many also experience mental confusion, loss of smell, and muscle pain in those first few days, according to an article in the Journal of Headache and Pain.
COVID Headache Location
- Is on both sides of the head
- Involves the neck or back of the head
- Comes on gradually
- Pain on one side of the head
- Sensitivity to light and noise
- Nausea and vomiting
- Digestive upset, including diarrhea
- Throbbing pain
- Vision changes
One study found that people who had a history of migraines experienced more pulsating headaches during COVID. Another study found that people who experienced severe headaches during COVID seemed to have longer lasting headaches that were more difficult to treat.
How Long Does a COVID Headache Last?
Each person experiences a COVID headache a little differently. For most, COVID headaches subside after their other symptoms resolve, usually about 1–2 weeks after the initial infection. But for some, COVID headaches may last several weeks or even several months after they first get sick. Headaches may be just one of several long COVID symptoms a person suffers.
Studies are ongoing, and our understanding changes as new COVID variants emerge. For those with long COVID, headache is common, about 18% of the time. Headache is the fifth most common reported symptom in those with long COVID—after fatigue (exhaustion), difficulty breathing, muscle pain, and cough.
Those prone to migraines may be more likely to experience headaches with long COVID, and may see an increase in strength and occurrence of migraines after a COVID infection. Migraine symptoms may include throbbing pain on one side of the head, along with sensitivity to light, noise, smell, and touch.
How to Get Rid of a COVID Headache?
Most COVID headaches resolve as other infection symptoms resolve. But that doesn’t mean you have to suffer in the meantime. There are various at-home treatments you can try to feel better, as well as medications you can take to help manage the pain.
To treat headache pain during a COVID infection or as part of long COVID:
- Stay hydrated; studies have found that dehydration increases the likelihood of COVID headaches
- Dim lights
- Massage the temples, forehead, and neck
- Apply cold or hot compresses to the head, neck, and face
- Make sure to get enough rest and sleep
- Manage stress
- Take OTC medicines, such as acetaminophen or NSAIDs (e.g., ibuprofen) for tension headaches or headaches with mild to moderate pain
When to Contact Your Healthcare Provider
Most COVID headaches improve as you begin to feel better and only require rest and hydration or pain medication. But if your headache pain persists after you try at-home remedies or OTC medicines, consult your doctor about prescription medication.
However, note that in some cases, a headache during COVID may be a sign of a medical emergency. A type of headache called a “thunderclap headache” has been linked to COVID and may be associated with bleeding in the brain. Thunderclap headaches can be deadly if not treated right away and are often described as the worst headache in a person’s life. Symptoms of a thunderclap headache include sudden and severe headache pain. Seek emergency medical care if you have these symptoms.
Also, according to the CDC, if any of the following symptoms accompany a COVID headache or other COVID symptoms, seek medical care immediately:
- Labored breathing
- Chest pressure or pain
- Extreme fatigue that makes it difficult to stay awake
- New feelings of confusion
- Skin, lips, or nail beds that are gray, pale, or blue
Headaches after COVID Vaccination
Up until now, we’ve discussed COVID headaches that occur during and after the initial acute period. But it’s also common for people to experience headaches after receiving a COVID vaccination. Studies show that headaches are actually the most common COVID vaccine side effect, with about half of all people experiencing a headache after getting the vaccine. Post-vaccine headaches typically occur within the first 72 hours after vaccination and resolve within a few days.
Headaches are a common symptom associated with COVID infection. People who are more prone to headaches are believed to be at a higher risk for COVID headaches after infection. The symptoms typically last between 1–2 weeks but can persist in cases of long COVID. COVID headaches are treated with home remedies or OTC medications, or, in severe cases, prescriptions.
César Fernández-de-las-Peñas, et. al. “Headache as a COVID-19 onset symptom and post-COVID-19 symptom in hospitalized COVID-19 survivors infected with the Wuhan, alpha, or delta SARS-CoV-2 variants,” Headache: A Journal of Head and Face Pain, September 16, 2022, https://doi.org/10.1111/head.14398
Adrienne C. Simmons, et. al. “Probable New Daily Persistent Headache after COVID-19 in Children and Adolescents,” Pediatric Neurology, July, 2022, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pediatrneurol.2022.04.009
American Migraine Foundation, “Migraine and Post-COVID Headache,” February 17, 2022, https://americanmigrainefoundation.org/resource-library/migraine-post-covid-headache/
Rehab Magdy, et. al. “Characteristics of headache attributed to COVID-19 infection and predictors of its frequency and intensity: A cross-sectional study,” International Headache Society, November 4, 2020, https://doi.org/10.1177/0333102420965140
Gareth Iacobucci, “Covid-19: Runny nose, headache, and fatigue are commonest symptoms of omicron, early data show,” BMJ, December, 16, 2021, https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.n3103
Edoardo Caronna and Patricia Pozo-Rosich “Headache as a Symptom of COVID-19: Narrative Review of 1-Year Research,” Current Pain and Headache Reports, November 11, 2021, https://doi.org/10.1007/s11916-021-00987-8
Pedro Augusto Sampaio Rocha-Filho, Pedro Mota Albuquerque, Larissa Clementino Leite Sá Carvalho, Mylana Dandara Pereira Gama, João Eudes Magalhães, “Headache, anosmia, ageusia and other neurological symptoms in COVID-19: A cross-sectional study,” The Journal of Headache and Pain, January 3, 2022, https://doi.org/10.1186/s10194-021-01367-8
Mayo Clinic, “Migraines: Simple steps to head off the pain,” https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/migraine-headache/in-depth/migraines/art-20047242
David García-Azorín, et al. “Delayed headache after COVID-19 vaccination: A red flag for vaccine-induced cerebral venous thrombosis,” The Journal of Headache and Pain, September 17, 2021, https://doi.org/10.1186/s10194-021-01324-5
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Possible Side Effects after Getting a COVID-19 Vaccine,” September 14, 2022, https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/vaccines/expect/after.html.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Symptoms of COVID-19,” August 11, 2022, https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/symptoms-testing/symptoms.html
Johns Hopkins Medicine, “Tension Headaches,” https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/headache/tension-headaches
Mayo Clinic, “Migraine,” July 02, 2021, https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/migraine-headache/symptoms-causes/syc-20360201
Johns Hopkins Medicine, “Coronavirus Diagnosis: What Should I Expect?,” January 24, 2022, https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/coronavirus/diagnosed-with-covid-19-what-to-expect
Martha Pretorius, Immo Weichert, “When the virus hits suddenly: COVID-19 mimicking a subarachnoid haemorrhage—A case report and concise review of the literature,” Oxford Medical Case Reports, January 24, 2022, https://doi.org/10.1093/omcr/omab133
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “What to Do If You Are Sick,” March 22, 2022, https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/if-you-are-sick/steps-when-sick.html