Why Do Colds Cause Headaches?

Most adults get an average of two to four colds per year, with symptoms including sneezing, coughing, congestion, and fatigue. You may not immediately think of headaches being on that list as well, but a lot of people get a headache at some point during the week or so that it takes for a cold to run its course. This symptom has received very little attention from researchers, but most headaches that occur with colds are believed to be the result of swelling in the sinuses.

Woman in bed with headache
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How Colds Affect Your Sinuses

Your sinuses are a collection of cavities behind your cheeks, nose, and eyes that produce mucus to keep your nasal passages moist and to help rid the area of dust, micro-organisms, and other substances that shouldn't be there.

When you get a cold, the virus enters your sinuses and your body starts producing mucus in an attempt to wash it out. As mucus builds up, the sinuses get irritated and inflamed.

Sinus Pressure and Headaches

That swelling and inflammation can cause very painful headaches that are worse when you lean over or when you wake up in the morning.

In some cases, the inflamed sinuses put pressure on the trigeminal nerve (the fifth cranial nerve), which causes pain behind the face and can also cause nasal congestion.

Sinus headaches can also be caused by allergies and any illness that causes sinus congestion.

Is It a Migraine?

Some research suggests that a larger percentage of headaches that show up during a cold are not sinus headaches at all, but migraines. The confusion is due to the location of the pain, as a migraine can also irritate the trigeminal nerve.

Research also suggests that chronic sinus problems and migraines may have a complex relationship as comorbid conditions, with on-going sinus pressure leading to migraines through trigeminal nerve irritation.

If you frequently get what you think are sinus headaches (with or without a cold), talk to your doctor about the possibility that they're migraines. That may help you find better relief.

Easing Headaches When You Have a Cold

Most headaches caused by colds will go away once you've recovered from the cold. In the meantime, you may get relief from over-the-counter medications or other treatments to relieve the sinus pressure.

Some people may find relief using sinus rinses with a Neti pot or squeeze bottle. 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 are anti-inflammatories and 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. 

Inhaling steam may help, as can putting a warm compress on your face.

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 healthcare provider. Headaches that are extremely severe and come on suddenly can be an emergency and you should seek medical attention right away. 

Also see a doctor for a headache if it:

  • Is accompanied by a stiff neck and vomiting
  • Is accompanied by numbness or tingling in the arms
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