As scientists continue to research the common symptoms associated with the coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2), many people suffering from headaches wonder if a migraine is a sign of COVID. Findings¹ suggest severe headaches and migraine attacks may be a symptom of COVID-19.
If you have never experienced a migraine and suddenly feel throbbing or pulsing pain in your head, it may be a headache caused by the coronavirus.
This guide will help you determine if your migraine symptoms are related to a migraine attack or COVID-19 headache and the best next steps.
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People with COVID-19 experience a broad range of symptoms. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention² (CDC), they may appear 2-14 days after exposure to the virus. Symptoms can be mild or severe.
If you think you have come into contact with someone infected with the coronavirus and you experience any of the following symptoms, you may have COVID-19:
Most people associate a cough, loss of smell (anosmia), or fever with the onset of COVID-19. Researchers³ are finding that one of the earliest symptoms is actually a headache.
Since headaches are common, it does not necessarily mean you have COVID-19. However, since severe headaches are an early-onset symptom of the virus, it is vital to know the difference so you can receive the appropriate care if needed.
Research indicates that a headache brought on by the coronavirus goes hand in hand with a newly experienced fatigue and loss of smell. Six in ten children and seven in ten adults with COVID-19 have reported headaches. Approximately 15% of people with COVID-19 have said a headache was their only symptom.
A migraine attack and COVID-19-related headache may feel similar, but they are very different:
Primary headache: Changes in levels of serotonin (neurotransmitters) or nerve signaling cause migraines, which could be a genetic condition or environmental.
Secondary headache: When an underlying condition or disease causes a headache, it’s a secondary headache, as with COVID-19.
If you have ever had a migraine, you know how debilitating the pain can become. What starts as a headache can quickly turn into severe pulsing and throbbing pressure that feels endless.
Light sensitivity is not uncommon, and sound often irritates a person experiencing a migraine. Many people will become nauseous from the intense pain with frequent bouts of vomiting.
As doctors and scientists do more research into the symptoms of COVID-19, headaches seem to be a common complaint. If you have a severe headache and are not susceptible to migraines, you may be wondering what's going on. A headache related to the coronavirus may appear as follows:
An intense pain that can range from moderate to severe
Pressing, pulsing, or stabbing pain
Bilateral pain that is felt equally on both sides of your head instead of just one central area
Headache lasts for more than three days
A coronavirus headache often occurs at the beginning of the infection but can worsen as the illness progresses. On average, a headache from the coronavirus lasts between three and five days.
Studies are still looking into the causes of COVID-19 headaches. Some researchers believe the coronavirus could be attacking the brain. In contrast, other scientists think hunger or dehydration could be the cause because we lose our appetites when ill.
Another theory is that when the virus attacks the sense of smell, it invades the nasal cavity and cribriform plate in the brain, creating a condition that can lead to a severe headache.
People who experience migraines do not have an increased risk of getting COVID-19.
A recent study⁴ found that patients prone to migraines before the COVID-19 pandemic may be experiencing more headache pain because of the psychosociological stresses of the quarantine.
Among study participants, 36.3% experienced migraine headaches, and the pulsating pain was more pronounced than others who had new-onset headaches caused by the coronavirus.
An astonishing 79.5% of the participants that reported previous headaches claimed their headaches during COVID-19 infection were unlike other migraine attacks experienced previously.
The most common triggers of the headache among study participants included stress, the infection itself, and drugs taken to counteract the symptoms of the coronavirus.
According to the CDC,⁵ people who received the COVID-19 vaccine have reported a headache as a common side effect. A migraine after the COVID vaccine is not uncommon. Other side effects often include:
Pain or swelling at the injection site
The CDC reports side effects may be more intense after receiving the second dose of the vaccine, even if symptoms were minimal after the first shot. It’s a sign that your body is building up protection from the coronavirus.
According to research from the Italian Medicines Agency database, migraine after a COVID-19 vaccine was highest after receiving the AstraZeneca vaccine. The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine had the second-highest rate of headache complaints, followed by the Moderna vaccine, which had the lowest rate
You can take over-the-counter (OTC) medications after the vaccine for pain relief. Doctors do not recommend them beforehand as they may cause complications with the vaccine’s effectiveness. Most side effects from the COVID-19 vaccine go away after a few days.
If your headache persists for several days after receiving the vaccine, contact your doctor to discuss pain relief options.
If you suspect you have COVID-19, follow the CDC guidelines⁶ and self-isolate. This is the best way to protect people you come in frequent contact with.
Several ways to treat a severe headache or migraine attack include:
Resting in a cool, dark room to limit light sensitivity
Applying a cold compress behind your neck and on your forehead
Practicing yoga techniques while remaining calm
Taking OTC pain relievers (Excedrin® Migraine, Motrin® Migraine Pain, Advil® Migraine)
The CDC recommends keeping a 30-day supply of OTC and prescription medications on hand during the pandemic to ensure you have an adequate supply of drugs to treat headache pain.
Adapting to a "new normal" can relieve stressors that may trigger a migraine. The pandemic has disrupted our lives and daily schedules over the last two years. Getting back to a routine may reduce the occurrence of migraine attacks.
Eating a healthy diet, getting a good night's rest, and regular exercise should keep migraine triggers at bay.
Lowering stress levels will bring peace to your life and help you focus on calming influences. Try taking a yoga class and enjoy daily meditation. Turn off the news and try to find activities that bring you joy.
Don't let isolation and physical distancing keep you from connecting with friends and family. Take advantage of technology and use video chats to stay in touch.
Consult your doctor if you have a chronic illness or a weakened immune system. They will be able to offer advice about how to care for a migraine attack brought on by COVID-19.
Speak to them if you have concerns or questions about migraine symptoms or medications. Instead of an in-person visit, consider a telehealth appointment to limit the stress and risk of going into the office.
Most headaches will go away without treatment.
If symptoms persist longer than two weeks, worsen, or over-the-counter medications don’t help, schedule an appointment with your healthcare provider.
If you are feeling confused, experiencing breathing problems, or your lips are turning blue, seek immediate medical attention.
Headaches caused by COVID-19 often affect both sides of the head and feel like a stabbing, pulsing pain that lasts for several days. Fatigue and loss of smell often accompany these headaches. The headache will typically go away, but you should seek medical attention if it worsens.
Symptoms of COVID-19 | Center for Disease Control and Prevention
Possible side effects after getting a COVID-19 vaccine | Center for Disease Control and Prevention
Quarantine and isolation | Center for Disease Control and Prevention