Why Do Colds Cause Headaches?

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Why do we get headaches with colds?. Blake Sinclair/Photolibrary/Getty Images

Most adults get an average of 2 colds per year. They are caused by over 200 different viruses, so avoiding them is close to impossible. 

The symptoms we experience when we get a cold can vary but typically include upper respiratory symptoms (like cough and congestion), feeling tired and headache. 

Headaches may not last the entire time your cold does, but almost everyone gets one at some point during the week or so that it takes for a cold to run it's course.

 

Have you ever wondered why you get a headache when you have a cold? 

Most headaches that occur with colds are the result of swelling in the sinuses. We have sinuses behind our cheeks, nose and eyes. When we get a cold, these sinuses get irritated and inflamed by the mucus that builds up. These sinus headaches are worse when you lean over or when you wake up in the morning. 

Swelling and inflammation can cause very painful headaches but they do typically resolve on their own once the cold goes away. However, that doesn't mean there is nothing you can do to get relief until the virus and your symptoms are gone.

What Can You Do?

Most headaches caused by colds can be relieved with over the counter medications or other treatments to relieve the sinus pressure. 

Some people may find relief with sinus rinses. Others may take over the counter pain medications such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen. NSAIDs such as ibuprofen (Motrin or Advil) will likely be more effective than acetaminophen because they help reduce swelling.

 

Another option is to take an expectorant and decongestant to help the mucus drain and relieve the pressure in your sinuses. For some people this can make a big difference with the headache as well. The decongestant helps the mucus drain and the expectorant loosens it and makes it thinner so it will drain more easily.

 

Drinking a lot of fluids is essential as well. Staying hydrated and drinking even more water than you typically do will help thin the mucus so it drains out of your sinuses. 

Running a humidifier - especially when you are sleeping at night - will help moisten your airways, thin the mucus and allow you to breathe more easily. 

As always, if you are concerned about your headache and feel like it may not be related to your cold, contact your health care provider. Headaches that are extremely severe and come on suddenly can be an emergency and you should seek medical attention right away. 

More reasons to see a doctor for a headache include headache after a recent head injury, when it is accompanied by a stiff neck and vomiting or if you also have numbness or tingling in the arms. 

Sources:

"Headache". MedlinePlus 29 Oct 13. US National Library of Medicine. National Institutes of Health. Department of Health and Human Services. 27 Apr 15. 

"Common Cold". MayoClinic 17 Apr 13. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. 27 Apr 15. 

"Cold and Cough Medications". MedlinePlus 5 Feb 15. US National Library of Medicine. National Institutes of Health. Department of Health and Human Services. 27 Apr 15. 

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