Why Do Colds Cause Headaches?

Adults get an average of two to four colds per year. Symptoms include sneezing, coughing, congestion, and fatigue. You may not immediately think of a headache as a cold symptom, but many 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 often, headaches that occur with colds result from swelling in the sinuses.

This article explains the common causes of cold-related headaches and what you can do about them.

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. They 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.

Is It a Sinus Headache?

The nasal passage swelling and inflammation accompanying colds can sometimes cause very painful headaches. Often, these sinus headaches are worse when you lean over or when you wake up in the morning.

Sinus headache symptoms include:

  • Pressure and pain in the forehead
  • Pressure and pain behind the cheeks and eyes
  • Pain that is worse on bending or lying down

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

In addition to colds, allergies, and any illness that causes sinus congestion, can cause a sinus headache.

Is It a Migraine?

Some research suggests that a more significant percentage of headaches that show up without acute inflammation are not sinus headaches at all but migraines. However, it's easy to confuse the two. That's because the location of the pain is often similar, as a migraine can also irritate the trigeminal nerve.

Migraine vs. Sinus Headache

One way to distinguish a migraine from a sinus headache is to look at other symptoms. For example, noise and bright light often aggravate migraines. In addition, migraines might cause nausea or vomiting. On the other hand, sinus headaches do not typically produce these additional symptoms.

Research also suggests that chronic sinus problems and migraines may have a complex relationship. These are sometimes comorbid conditions (when a person has two or more health conditions at once), with ongoing sinus pressure leading to migraines through trigeminal nerve irritation.

If you frequently get what you think are sinus headaches (with or without a cold), ask a healthcare provider if they could be migraines. Knowing which kind of headache you have can help you find better relief.

Treating Cold-related Headaches

Most of the time, when colds cause headaches, they will go away once you've recovered from the cold. In the meantime, you may find relief from over-the-counter (OTC) medications or other treatments to relieve sinus pressure.

Fluids

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

In addition, some people find relief using sinus rinses. For example, try using a Neti pot or squeeze bottle to rinse the nose. Or maybe you prefer saline nasal sprays. These products work by clearing out your nasal passages, so the mucus drains more easily.

OTC Pain Medication

OTC pain medications are good options for relieving headache pain. Headache pain relievers include:

  • Ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin)
  • Acetaminophen (Tylenol)
  • Naproxen (Aleve)
  • Aspirin

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen, naproxen, and aspirin are often more effective than acetaminophen because they are anti-inflammatories and help reduce swelling. 

Expectorant and Decongestants

Another option is to take an expectorant or 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.

Decongestant vs. Expectorant

These medications work differently to relieve congestion. For example, a decongestant narrows blood vessels, making mucus easier to drain. On the other hand, an expectorant breaks up and thins mucus to drain more quickly. 

Steam

Running a humidifier—especially when you are sleeping at night—helps moisten your airways, thin the mucus, and allows you to breathe more easily. 

If you don't have a humidifier, you can inhale steam by running a hot shower and sitting in a steamy bathroom, Alternately, you can lean over a steaming pot of water. With the latter, be very careful not to burn yourself. In addition, putting a warm compress on your face can be soothing and help loosen congestion.

Recap

If you have a cold-related headache, treatment options include fluids, OTC pain relievers and decongestants, and steam.

When to See a Doctor

As always, if you are concerned about your headache or feel like it may not be related to your cold, contact a healthcare provider. Headaches that are severe or come on suddenly can be an emergency. In these cases, you should seek medical attention right away. 

Also, see a healthcare provider for a headache if it is accompanied by:

  • A stiff neck
  • Vomiting
  • Numbness or tingling in the arms

Summary

Headaches commonly occur with colds. That's because sinuses often become inflamed, irritated, and congested, leading to head and facial pain. Treating cold-related headaches involves providing pain relief and treating congestion. Usually, OTC pain medications, decongestants, and expectorants do the trick. Other methods for relief include fluids, nasal rinses, steam, and warm compresses.

7 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. MedlinePlus. Headache.

  3. Patel ZM, Kennedy DW, Setzen M, Poetker DM, DelGaudio JM. "Sinus headache": rhinogenic headache or migraine? An evidence-based guide to diagnosis and treatmentInt Forum Allergy Rhinol. 2013;3(3):221-230. doi:10.1002/alr.21095

  4. American Academy of Otolaryngology, Head and Neck Surgery Foundation. Sinus headaches.

  5. Cedars-Sinai. Sinus headaches.

  6. De Corso E, Kar M, Cantone E, et al. Facial pain: sinus or notActa Otorhinolaryngol Ital. 2018;38(6):485-496. doi:10.14639/0392-100X-1721

  7. Harvard Medical School, Harvard Health Publishing. What to do about sinusitis.

Additional Reading

By Kristina Duda, RN
Kristina Duda, BSN, RN, CPN, has been working in healthcare since 2002. She specializes in pediatrics and disease and infection prevention.