Cough Headaches

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last review date: November 2010

Cough headaches are triggered by strain or exertion that occurs by:

  • Coughing
  • Bending over
  • Laughing
  • Sneezing
  • Blowing of the nose
  • Holding the breath
  • Fast head movements
  • Singing
  • Crying
  • Having a bowel movement

Some clinical studies have shown that men are four times more likely to suffer from cough headaches as women. Most cough headaches don’t appear until after age 40.

Types of cough headaches

There are two types of cough headaches, those that are harmless and those that might indicate a more serious disorder. Primary cough headaches are harmless. However, any underlying cause of the headaches must be ruled out first to ensure that a brain lesion or other more serious condition isn’t causing the pain that accompanies straining. The International Headache Society requires that structural brain lesions and aneurysms be ruled out by examining the patient with a brain MRI before diagnosing primary cough headache. Some clinical research shows that about 40 percent of cough headaches indicate another disorder. See your doctor if you suffer from cough headaches so that all other possible conditions can be ruled out.

Symptoms of cough headache

  • Pain on both sides of the head
  • Head pain starts suddenly after cough or other trigger
  • Lasts a very short period of time, sometimes only one minute

What causes cough headaches

Harmless, primary cough headaches are believed to be caused by increased pressure in the head that comes from coughing and other types of strain. This pressure increase is called the Valsalva’s maneuver, which is sometimes done deliberately by closing the mouth, pinching the nose and breathing out. It is done to equalize pressure in the ear, for example, if pressure builds while flying. However, there is the risk of applying too much pressure to the middle ear and causing damage. Cough headaches appear similar to migraines triggered by physical activity and to exertion headaches.

Diagnosing Cough Headaches

The International Headache Society defines cough headache as:

  1. A headache with the characteristics listed in B and C
  2. Starts suddenly and lasts one second to 30 minutes
  3. Headache is brought on by and only happens with coughing, straining and Valsalva maneuvers
  4. Headache is not caused by another disorder

By providing your email address, you are agreeing to our privacy policy.