Why Does My Head Hurt When I Cough? A Quick Self Diagnosis

At times, you must have found yourself wondering, “Why does my head hurt when I cough?”. Though, most of the times it is a harmless consequence of increased pressure during coughing which resolves on its own, sometimes it can have underlying serious problems which need to be recognized.

why does my head hurt when i cough?
why does my head hurt when i cough?

Causes of Cough Headaches

The reason for the head to hurt when a person coughs is the headache triggered due to sudden increased pressure within the abdomen and chest while coughing. Thus, similar actions can also cause headaches. These other actions include:

  • Strain during bowel
  • Laughing
  • Sneezing or blowing nose
  • Bending over
  • Singing

Types of Cough Headaches

According to the symptoms, medical personnel may define the headaches caused by coughing into two categories:

  1. Primary Cough Headaches
  2. Secondary Cough Headaches

Primary Cough Headaches

Primary cough headaches are the one which are simply caused due to increased pressure in abdomen and chest during coughing, which gets transferred to the head. No underlying specific cause has been found for it.

These are usually short lasting, typically from a few minutes to half an hour. They are spontaneously caused during or just after coughing.

Why Does My Head Hurt When I Cough Image
Why Does My Head Hurt When I Cough?

Such headaches may start as sharp, stabbing and are felt on both the sides of the head, termed as bilateral. Unilateral cough headaches are not usually primarily in nature. Sometime, these cough headaches may become dull and generalized and this dull ache can last longer.

The primary cough headaches are common in adults aged 40 and above, with a slight male preponderance .

Secondary Cough Headaches

Secondary cough headaches are different from the primary ones because unlike the primary cough headaches, these are the consequence of some underlying medical condition.

They typically last longer, vary in their duration and location. The pain in secondary cough headaches is not bilateral. It is of higher intensity, associated with other symptoms like

  • Fainting
  • Dizziness
  • Loss of balance
  • Facial numbness
  • Blurring of vision

The cause of secondary cough headaches in some underlying medical condition are the following:

  • Chiari Malformation: Chiari type 1, a structure defect in skull due to misshapen skull, is the most common cause of secondary cough headaches. In this condition, cerebellum, a part of hind brain, is pushed downwards into the spinal canal’s upper part. This malformation can occur either before birth during the fetal stage, or after birth due to injury, infection, disease etc. The cerebellum is the part responsible for motor balance of the body, which can be seen in the symptoms like dizziness, fainting.
Why Does My Head Hurt When I Cough Chiari Malformation Type-1
credits : kidshealth
  • Other defects in the shape of the skull.
  • Brain Tumor: Brain tumor consists of mass of uncontrollably dividing abnormal cells.
  • Cerebral Aneurysm: An aneurysm is a weak part of blood vessel, which bulges out and pushes the surrounding tissue.
  • An increase or decrease in the pressure of Cerebrospinal Fluid.

The secondary cough headaches are more commonly seen in people below the age of 40 years.

When To See A Doctor?

The answer to your question of “Why does my head hurt when I cough”, has been elaborated above but one might still be confused about seeing the doctor.

One should see the doctor if the following occur:

  • The headache has lasted for a long time.
  • One is experiencing recurrent cough headaches.
  • The headache due to cough is unbearable and very severe.
  • The cough headache is associated with other symptoms like dizziness, blurred vision etc. which indicate presence of underlying condition.
  • The headache is interfering with normal life of the person
  • The home remedies fail to relieve the headache.


Primary cough headaches usually are eliminated on their own in some time, but if you can’t stop thinking about it and keep wondering why does my head hurt when I cough, home remedies can be very helpful in resolving the problem in an accelerated manner. One can try to cure the cough and cold by using vaporizer, steam treatment, drinking warm beverages like warm water with honey, avoiding cold beverages, taking plenty of rest.

The medicines usually prescribed by the doctor which can be used to eliminate such headaches are:

  • Anti-inflammatory drugs
  • Beta blockers
  • Vessel dilators
  • Diuretics
  • Steroids
  • Over the counter (OTC) drugs for cough can also be used.

Secondary cough headaches should have their treatment based on diagnosis as done by the doctor. They may suggest MRI or CT scan for the same. According to the underlying cause, the treatment may take its course in any of the following manners:

  • Chiari Malformation: Surgery may be required to create space in the skull for normal positioning of cerebellum
  • Brain Tumor: According to the type of tumor present, the doctor may suggest Surgery, Radiation, Chemotherapy or cocktail treatment involving all of them.
  • Cerebral Aneurysm: Surgery or flow-diverter implantation.
  • Abnormal amount of Cerebrospinal Fluid (CSF): Surgery helps bring the CSF volume back to normal.


Headaches during coughing can make you wonder why does my head hurt when I cough or is something wrong with my health. But most of the times they are benign, which resolve on their own in a short while. But if the cough headache lasts longer, is severe, and is associated with other symptoms, one should consider seeing a doctor and seeking the appropriate treatment to resolve the issue.

why does my head hurt when I cough?


About author

Anushree Tripathi

A medical student from Chirayu Medical College and Hospital, Bhopal. On constant lookout to share knowledge and provide answers related to the field of medicine.