What Causes Fever and Headache Together and How It’s Treated

Headaches are common and usually nothing to worry about. But if you have a fever in addition to a headache, please see your healthcare provider for a proper diagnosis.

The combination of a fever and a headache may be a sign of a serious infection. Or they may be signs of a run-of-the-mill viral infection that simply needs to run its course.

The article discusses both infectious and non-infectious causes of a headache and fever. It also covers other possible symptoms and when you should see a doctor.

Why Do I Have a Headache and Fever?
Verywell / Joshua Seong

Meningitis

Meningitis is an inflammation of the meninges, the protective membranes around the brain and spinal cord. Meningitis is usually caused by viruses or bacteria, but it can also be caused by some medicines or illnesses.

While any type of meningitis can be serious, viral meningitis tends to be less severe than bacterial meningitis. In some cases, bacterial meningitis can lead to coma or death, so it requires immediate medical care.

Symptoms

In addition to a severe, generalized headache and a high fever, symptoms of meningitis may include:

  • Neck stiffness
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Confusion
  • Rash
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Joint pains
  • Seizures

A person typically will not have all of these symptoms, which is why a doctor's examination is critical. If you think you may have symptoms of meningitis, seek immediate medical care.

In the majority of people with meningitis, nuchal rigidity will be present. Nuchal rigidity means that a person can’t flex their neck, so they’re unable to touch their chin to their chest.

Treatment

With viral meningitis, there is no specific treatment. Most people recover on their own from viral meningitis after a week to 10 days. An antiviral medication could help if the meningitis is caused by certain viruses such as influenza or herpes virus.

Bacterial meningitis is treated with antibiotics. Because bacterial meningitis can be a serious, life-threatening infection, it’s important to start treatment as soon as possible.

Recap

Symptoms of meningitis may include severe headache, high fever, and neck stiffness. With bacterial meningitis, it’s important to start antibiotic treatment right away to prevent life-threatening complications.

Encephalitis

Encephalitis is an infection of the central nervous system that may be caused by a virus, bacteria, or fungus. Encephalitis is similar to meningitis, but a key difference is that encephalitis causes people to have abnormalities in brain function.

Encephalitis is a serious, life-threatening disease that needs immediate medical attention. Mild cases tend to have a short duration, but severe cases lead to death in about 10% of patients.

Because the two can be so difficult to differentiate, doctors sometimes use the term “meningoencephalitis.”

Symptoms

In addition to fever and headache, symptoms of encephalitis include:

  • Joint pain
  • Muscle weakness
  • Stiff neck
  • Nausea

Encephalitis causes symptoms with brain function as well, including:

  • Confusion
  • Behavior changes
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Difficulty speaking
  • Trouble moving
  • Memory issues
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Seizures

Treatment

Treatment depends on the type of encephalitis you have. If it’s a bacterial infection, antibiotics should be prescribed. For viral infections, antiviral medications may be given.

Other treatments may depend on the severity of the illness. Steroids may be given to reduce swelling and brain pressure.

Recap

Encephalitis can cause headache and fever along with a stiff neck and joint pain. Because death can occur in 10% of patients, it requires immediate emergency care.

Cold or Flu

Influenza, commonly known as “the flu,” and the common cold can cause fever and headache. Both are caused by viruses that spread easily from person to person.

The flu can cause mild symptoms or severe illness. In some instances, it can be serious enough to be life-threatening, especially for those over 65, people with chronic illnesses, and newborns.

Symptoms

Along with fever and headache, other symptoms of the flu may include:

  • Chills
  • Cough
  • Stuffy or runny nose
  • Muscle aches
  • Fatigue (tiredness)
  • Vomiting or diarrhea possible (more common in children)

When you have a cold, the symptoms can be similar to the flu. Fever and headache are possible but less common with a cold than with the flu.

Symptoms of a cold include:

  • Sneezing
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Sore throat
  • Cough

Treatment

Often, the best treatment for both the cold and flu is to stay home, get lots of rest, and drink lots of fluid. Over-the-counter medications like acetaminophen and ibuprofen may also help with a headache and fever.

If you have the flu, your doctor may be able to prescribe antiviral drugs. These can reduce the amount of time you’re sick by a couple of days and decrease the chance of complications.

Physicians don’t prescribe antibiotics for a cold or flu, since they’re not effective against viruses. However, if you get a complication from the cold or flu, such as a sinus infection, you might need an antibiotic.

Recap

For the flu and common cold, treatment includes ibuprofen or acetaminophen for pain and fever. If you have the flu, a doctor may prescribe an antiviral drug to help reduce the risk of complications.

Brain Abscess

A brain abscess is a rare, but potentially life-threatening condition, in which infected fluid collects in the brain.

A headache from a brain abscess occurs as a result of elevated intracranial pressure as the fluid continues to grow and take up space.

Symptoms

Symptoms of a brain abscess can resemble that of meningitis or encephalitis. In addition to fever and headache, symptoms include:

  • Neck stiffness
  • Chills
  • Vomiting
  • Confusion, trouble focusing, or sleepiness
  • Weakness
  • Language problems
  • Loss of muscle function, usually on one side
  • Vision changes
  • Seizures

Treatment

Medication may be the first step if the abscess is less than 2 centimeters or the abscess is deep in the brain. This can include antibiotics or antifungal medication, depending on what caused the infection. Diuretics, which reduce fluid, may also be used to decrease swelling in the brain.

Surgery may be needed to drain the abscess if it’s larger than 2 centimeters or if it might rupture.

If the abscess is deep, needle aspiration guided by CT or MRI scan may be used to drain the fluid.

Recap

A brain abscess is a life-threatening condition where fluid builds up in the brain. Treatment may include medication or surgery.

Sinus Infection

A sinus infection, or sinusitis, is the swelling or inflammation of the lining in your sinuses. Your sinuses are hollow spaces behind your forehead, eyes, and cheeks that connect to your nasal passages.

The sinuses make thin mucus that drains out of the nose. When they become blocked with fluid, bacteria can grow and cause an infection. This extra mucus could be caused by a cold or allergies.

Symptoms

A bacterial sinus infection can give you a fever and a sinus headache, which you may feel around your eyes and forehead. Other symptoms include:

  • Facial tenderness or swelling
  • Ear pain
  • Tooth pain
  • Thick nasal discharge

Treatment

If you have bacterial sinusitis, a week or so of antibiotics, rest, fluids, and steam should clear it up quickly. Very rarely sinus infections lead to other complications like a brain abscess, meningitis, blood clot, or osteomyelitis—an infection of the facial bones (especially the forehead).

If you are diagnosed with a sinus infection, be sure to follow up with your healthcare provider if your fever persists while taking antibiotics.

Recap

A sinus infection can cause facial tenderness and swelling along with a headache and fever. Your doctor will likely prescribe antibiotics for bacterial sinusitis.

Heatstroke

Heatstroke is the most severe form of heat-related illness. It happens when your body overheats to over 104 degrees F and you aren’t able to sweat enough to cool your body down. It can be life-threatening and requires immediate medical attention.

Symptoms

The symptoms of heatstroke include:

  • High body temperature (over 104 degrees F)
  • Headache
  • Hot, dry, and flushed skin
  • Lack of sweat
  • Muscle cramps
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Dizziness
  • Delirium
  • Unconsciousness

Treatment

Heatstroke is a medical emergency. Call 911 if you suspect heatstroke.

While waiting for medical help, try cooling the person’s body as quickly as possible. Get to a shady, cool area. Have them lie down and elevate their feet. Apply cold water to the skin and then use a fan to help cool the body quickly.

In the emergency room, intravenous (IV) fluids will be used to replace fluids lost.

Recap

With heatstroke, your body temperature rises to over 104 degrees. It’s considered a medical emergency. If you suspect heatstroke, go to the emergency room or call 911.

Rheumatoid Arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) causes pain, stiffness, and swelling in the joints. It’s an autoimmune disease, which means that it happens when the immune system attacks the body’s own tissues. In some cases, it can cause fever and headaches.

Symptoms

RA can occasionally cause mild fevers, usually between 99 and 100 degrees F. It can also cause headaches, particularly if it affects the cervical spine.

Other symptoms include:

  • Neck or back pain
  • Swelling of joints
  • Warmth around joints
  • Weakness
  • Fatigue

Treatment

Treatment for RA typically includes disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs). These can slow the progression of RA by modifying your immune system. Biologic agents are sometimes used to control inflammation in rheumatoid arthritis.

Recap

Rheumatoid arthritis can cause mild fevers. It can also cause headaches when it affects the cervical spine.

HIV or AIDS

HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) damages your immune system by attacking a type of white blood cell that fights infections.

If HIV isn’t treated, it can lead to AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome). AIDS is the final stage of HIV infection in which the immune system is severely damaged.

Early HIV or AIDS can cause many different symptoms. Headache and fever are possible symptoms of both.

Symptoms

Symptoms of early HIV infection can happen two to four weeks after exposure to the virus. These early symptoms are estimated to affect 50% to 90% of those infected.

Early HIV symptoms include:

  • Fever (above 100.4 degrees F)
  • Headache
  • Sore throat
  • Muscle and joint pain
  • Rash that occurs two to three days after fever

If HIV isn’t treated, it weakens your immune system and can lead to AIDS. At this stage, you’re more likely to develop “opportunistic infections,” severe illnesses that your body can’t fight off. Depending on the infections, symptoms can include fevers, shortness of breath, blurred vision, and weight loss.

A 2012 study of 200 HIV/AIDS patients found that 53% reported headaches. It was one of the most common medical complaints reported. Headaches were reported more often when the disease was more severe, showing the importance of treatment.

Treatment

While there isn’t a cure for HIV, medications are available to control it. Antiretroviral therapy (ART) involves taking a daily combination of HIV medications. This reduces the amount of HIV in the blood and helps protect the immune system.

Recap

HIV may cause early symptoms like a fever and headache soon after exposure. If HIV isn’t treated, it can lead to AIDS, which makes you more likely to develop serious infections.

Lupus

Lupus is an autoimmune disease, which means your immune system attacks healthy cells. It can cause swelling and pain throughout your body. Your symptoms can be minimal at times and flare up at other times, suddenly becoming more severe.

Symptoms

Headaches are a common symptom for people with lupus. In a 2021 study, 54% of patients with lupus reported having primary headaches, with migraines the most common.

Reoccuring low-grade fevers are also common before a lupus flare or oncoming illness.

Other symptoms include:

  • Joint stiffness, pain, or swelling
  • Fatigue
  • Swelling in the hands or feet
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Chest pain when taking deep breaths
  • Hair loss
  • Sores in the mouth or nose
  • Butterfly-shaped rash on cheeks and nose

Treatment

There is no cure for lupus, but different types of medications are available to treat symptoms and manage the illness. Some medications can help treat swelling and pain. Others help prevent the immune system from attacking tissues in the body.

For mild pain and fevers, your physician may suggest over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen and naproxen.

Corticosteroids such as prednisone can help reduce pain and calm the immune system. They may be prescribed in either low or high doses, depending on the severity of the illness.

Antimalarial drugs such as hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine phosphate may also be prescribed. In addition to treating malaria, they help treat joint pain, fatigue, and lung inflammation with lupus.

Recap

Headaches, particularly migraines, are a common symptom for people with lupus. Low-grade fevers often occur before a lupus flare.

When to See a Doctor

If you have a fever and headache, you may need to get medical care to determine the cause. Call your doctor to let them know your symptoms.

Go to the doctor right away if you experience any of the following:

  • A severe headache
  • A headache that doesn’t go away with medication
  • A fever over 103 degrees F
  • Fever and/or headache that are persistent
  • Headache and fever that get worse instead of improving
  • Headaches and fever that happen more often than usual

Seek immediate medical care if you have fever and headache along with:

  • Stiff or painful neck
  • Rash
  • Vomiting
  • Confusion
  • Fainting
  • Vision changes
  • Loss of muscle function
  • Difficulty speaking or moving
  • Seizures

You should also go to the emergency room for extremely painful headaches that occur suddenly. These are called thunderclap headaches because they can appear suddenly like a crash of thunder.

Some thunderclap headaches can occur because of a problem with blood vessels in the brain. This can include a stroke or a brain aneurysm.

A thunderclap headache can represent a serious, life-threatening medical condition, so get help right away by either calling 911 or going to your nearest emergency room.

Summary

Having both a fever and headache can be signs of an infectious or non-infectious condition. Some illnesses may be mild, such as the common cold. Others can be serious, or even life-threatening, such as meningitis or a brain abscess.

Call your doctor if you have any questions about what could be causing your headache and fever. Let them know if you have new or concerning symptoms, or if they’re persistent or getting worse. Seek emergency care for any severe symptoms.

A Word From Verywell

If you have a headache and fever, it’s normal to be concerned. If your symptoms are mild, rest assured that headache and fever are common signs of a minor illness.

If you have any concerns that it could be more severe, it’s a good idea to err on the side of caution and get it checked out. Your doctor can help you to pinpoint what might be causing your symptoms and find a way to treat them.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What causes headache and fever?

    Several conditions can present with a headache and fever. These include: 

    • Brain abscess (rare)
    • Brain tumor (rare)
    • Encephalitis
    • Giant cell arteritis
    • HIV
    • Influenza
    • Meningitis 
    • Mononucleosis
    • Lupus
    • Osteomyelitis
    • Pituitary apoplexy (rare)
    • Sinus infection
    • Sarcoidosis
    • Subarachnoid hemorrhage (rare)
  • Can migraines cause fevers?

    Migraines do not typically cause fevers. It is not impossible to have a fever with a migraine, but it is rare. 

  • When should I see a doctor for headache and fever?

    A headache and a fever may be a symptom of a more serious condition. If you have a headache and fever, call your doctor to see if you should be seen. If the headache is severe, the fever is high, or it is after hours and fever-reducing and headache medicines fail to bring relief, go to the emergency room.

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