Cough, fever, and shortness of breath were among the most common signs (in addition to a positive test) that you had been infected with COVID-19. But the latest variants have brought another growing symptom to the table: headaches.
“Earlier in the pandemic, we frequently saw headaches in patients who had lost their sense of smell and taste, but with Omicron we now see headaches even without loss of senses, and they often occur during and after the period of infection,” says Thomas Gut, DO, director of the Post-COVID Recovery Center at Staten Island University Hospital, part of Northwell Health in New York.
And research is beginning to emerge to back up these anecdotal clinical findings. Headaches, fatigue and cold-like symptoms such as a runny nose were the most commonly reported symptoms of Omicron, according to a recent study in the journal. The BMJ, while another in The Headache and Pain Diary found that headaches were one of the most frequent and persistent symptoms of ‘long Covid’.
Medical experts are also finding that headaches present as a symptom of Covid-19 both in predisposed people (i.e. who previously suffered from headaches before infection) and in those who have never had headaches before. “Many patients say they have a headache for the first time during Covid, which is unfortunate,” says Rafia Shafqat, MD, a neurologist at OhioHealth.
Here’s what to know about a Covid-19 headache, and how to find relief.
What does a headache related to COVID-19 look like?
If you’ve had headaches before or suffer from them frequently, this may sound familiar. But since there are several types of headaches – migraine, tension and clusters being the most prominent – you may never have experienced this exact type of headache before. “Most people report it as a tension-type headache, with a band-like phenomenon, but it can also be a migraine-type headache with nausea or sensitivity to light and sound,” says board-certified Rachel Colman, MD. neurologist and headache medicine specialist at Hartford Healthcare Ayer Neuroscience Institute in Connecticut.
Dr. Shafqat says a headache related to COVID-19 can also look like or be accompanied by:
Throbbing or throbbing pain
Sharp, throbbing pain in the temples or back of the head
Dizziness, lightheadedness, or lightheadedness
Sensory dysfunction such as numbness or tingling, difficulty thinking, or ringing in the ears
What causes a COVID0-19 headache?
There could be a few things at play. For one, the body-wide inflammation you experience when infected with the virus could trigger a headache, just like the blood vessels in your brain could swell. ignite, says Dr. Colman. Then there’s the potential neurological piece, since we know that COVID-19 can attack our neurological system, and headaches in general are a neurological condition. “The theory is that once the virus has passed through the nose to the olfactory bulb (which affects our senses), it can attack nerves that contribute to pain in the head and impact blood vessels. of the brain,” says Dr. Colman. “So a direct invasion, there’s a theory as to why people have COVID-related headaches.”
Other things that happen during an infection, such as not staying adequately hydrated, not eating enough, or not sleeping well, can also contribute to or make a headache worse.
How long does a headache related to COVID-19 last?
It depends. Some people may have a headache until their test is negative, while others may only have a headache for a few days of the active infection period. The duration of headaches during “long COVID” is even more obscure, with the symptom presenting for days, weeks or months. “It’s a mixed bag. Some patients who have had migraines and tension headaches in the past say they become more frequent right after COVID, and some people who have never had them regularly develop symptoms of tension-type headaches that persist,” explains the Dr. Gut. “Usually we see the headache symptoms go away after a few months.”
What’s the best way to get relief from a headache related to COVID-19?
Spoiler alert: There is no magic solution. “It’s pretty much the same thing you would do for a headache in another scenario; unfortunately, there’s nothing special you can do to feel better,” says Dr. Colman. “Lifestyle factors are super important, and if you want a hint, I’d say chicken soup is always a good idea – it’s hydrating, contains nutrients and electrolytes, and is comforting.”
Focus on these lifestyle habits to help with COVID-19 and “long COVID” headaches:
Take over-the-counter pain relievers such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen for pain relief during the acute infection period. “At the start of COVID they were saying not to take certain painkillers, but that’s old news, so take whatever relieves your headaches and/or other symptoms,” says Dr. Shafqat.
Stay hydrated. When you don’t get enough fluids, tissues and your brain constrict, putting pressure on nerves that can trigger a headache.
Don’t skip meals. Even if you don’t feel like eating, it’s important to do so to avoid blood sugar changes that could lead to headaches. Try easy-to-eat foods that you can incorporate nutrients into, such as smoothies, soups or stews, oatmeal, eggs, and toast.
Focus on sleep. Once you have recovered from COVID, do your best to return to your usual sleep-wake schedule. “I know it can be hard to sleep when you have a headache, but do your best to get seven to eight hours of sleep,” says Dr. Shafqat. It can also help combat fatigue, another common symptom of ‘long Covid’.
Try to tame stress, which can be a trigger for headaches.
Once you feel better, do some light physical activity like walking. “It can be hard to consider going back to the type of exercise you were doing before, but just start slow and work your way up,” Dr. Colman says.
If you know something in our environment is triggering your headache or making it worse — like certain lights, sounds, or smells — “getting yourself out of that environment is a good first step to help end that headache.” , says Dr. Gut.
Stay up to date on COVID-19 vaccinations. “It’s still one of the best things you can do to help prevent ‘long COVID’ symptoms,” says Dr. Gut. “The bivalent vaccine has been good at this.”
When to see a doctor for a headache related to COVID-19:
If you have “the most awful headache of your life,” seek medical help right away because it could potentially signal something life-threatening like a brain bleed, Dr. Gut says. And always go to the emergency room if you experience a headache accompanied by a stiff neck, decreased level of consciousness, seizures, or severe light sensitivity, says Dr. Colman, because these may be signs of COVID-related meningitis or encephalitis (inflammation of the lining of the brain, caused by an infection).
In general, it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor anytime headaches interfere with your daily life or become frequent enough that you regularly take over-the-counter pain relievers – they can help you find medications that can help you get relief, or identify underlying issues that may be contributing to it.
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