An Overview of Swim-Related Headaches

Whether you are just splashing around with the kids or swimming laps, spending time in a pool may leave you with a headache. 

Swim-associated headaches can be caused by a number of disorders and can be triggered by pressure from goggles or swim caps, irritation to chemicals, changes in pressure from diving, heat, dehydration, or simply exercise itself. 

Here's a closer look at different types of headaches related to swimming, how they differ from each other and what can take away the pain. 

Sinusitis 

A common after-swim headache, sinus headaches are due to clogged sinus cavities, which can lead to infection and pain.

Sinus cavities can be irritated by swimming in chlorinated water and by changes in pressure from swimming underwater and diving, leading to inflammation of the sinus cavity, or sinusitis. 

Bacteria and viruses can enter the nasal cavity during swimming, causing a sinus infection. If you have sinus pain that does not resolve with over the counter medication, see your doctor. 

Over the counter pain relievers, such as Tylenol, Advil, or Excedrin, or nasal sprays, such as Afrin, can help relieve the pain. In the case of an infection, your doctor will likely prescribe antibiotics.

Swimmer's Ear

Otitis externa, also known as swimmer’s ear, is a bacterial ear infection of the outer ear canal. It occurs when water gets trapped in the ear. Symptoms include itching, a feeling of fullness or fluid in the ear, and pain. 

For many people with swimmer’s ear, headache or jaw pain are the primary symptoms. Headaches that center around the ear during swim season may be swimmer’s ear and should be checked by your doctor. 

Over the counter pain medications, like Tylenol (acetaminophen) or Advil (ibuprofen), can help relieve the pain, but in the case of an infection, your doctor will likely prescribe antibiotic ear drops.

Using earplugs made for swimming can help prevent swimmer’s ear. 

Tension Headache

Some headaches that occur after swimming are just a run-of-the-mill tension headache or a migraine, and not due to swimming at all. Tension headaches can be caused by heat, dehydration, bright sunlight, or skipping meals.

Tension headaches are typically a dull, aching pain and may include tightness or pressure across the forehead, sides or back of your head. Some people experience tenderness on the scalp, neck, and shoulders as well. 

This type of headache typically responds well to over the counter pain medication, such as Tylenol or Excedrin.

Be sure to hydrate, eat nutritiously, take breaks from the sun, and consider wearing sunglasses when floating in the pool.

Migraine

Swimming can sometimes trigger a migraine. Swim-related migraines may begin as tension headaches, but take the pain to a greater level, with throbbing or pulsing.

Migraines are often accompanied by nausea and vomiting, blurred vision, sensitivity to light, sound, smell, or touch, and lightheadedness that may lead to fainting. 

Migraines can resolve with Excedrin, though sometimes prescription medication is needed. 

Compression Headache

A headache caused by applied pressure over the scalp or forehead like from goggles or tight swim cap, external compression headache is an unusual disorder. 

According to the International Headache Society, this type of headache is constant, does not throb, and typically resolves after the pressure is alleviated. 

Medication is not typically needed for this type of headache, however, if the pressure continues for a prolonged period, it may turn into a migraine.

Supraorbital Neuralgia

Another unusual type of headache, supraorbital neuralgia is a constant or spasming pain in the supraorbital nerve in the forehead. Some people also experience numbness or tingling in the forehead as well with this type of headache. 

Goggles are the usual culprit of supraorbital neuralgia after swimming and people with certain facial anatomy—a supraorbital notch as opposed to a supraorbital foramen—are more prone to this rare type of headache. 

Supraorbital neuralgia pain is treated with an anesthetic nerve blockade or nerve ablation. 

If you suspect this type of headache, put goggles on gently, rotate different placement to avoid repeated pressure on the same spots, and try different goggles—ones with soft rubber and a smaller area of the seal around the eyes can reduce pressure. 

Primary Exercise Headache

Strenuous swimming can cause primary exercise headaches, an exertional headache that throbs, lasts for less than 48 hours, and occurs during or after vigorous physical activity. 

These headaches are more common in men than women and can be accompanied by nausea. Hot weather and high altitudes can contribute to the pain.

Primary exercise headaches are rare and not a worrisome medical condition. However, they mimic more serious disorders and should be seen by a neurologist to confirm the cause. 

Exertional headaches are typically treated with Tivorbex (indomethacin), a type of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medication, or NSAID. 

A Word from Verywell

Swimming is a fantastic form of aerobic exercise, though some swimmers though are plagued by headaches that are caused by the strenuous nature of swimming or by their gear.

If you suffer from headaches during or after swimming and simple measures are not relieving them, see your doctor for a proper diagnosis and treatment plan.

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Article Sources

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