Why Do Colds Cause Headaches?

Common cold symptoms usually include headaches as the infection runs its course. Cold-related headaches are not well studied, but swelling in the sinuses are one reason why they might happen. Other possible causes include inflammation as your body fights the virus, dehydration, poor sleep, or straining while coughing.

This article covers the common causes of cold-related headaches as well as some tips for feeling better if you get a headache with a cold.

Woman in bed with headache
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Immune Response

Adults get an average of two or three colds per year. When you're exposed to a cold virus, your immune system sets off a chain of responses that leads to inflammation, or swelling, in your nose, sinuses, and throat.

Common cold symptoms often include sore throat, runny nose, coughing, sneezing, headaches, and body aches.

A key part of the immune response to a cold virus is the release of proteins called cytokines that signal it is time to fight the viral infection. Certain cytokines contribute to inflammation and are linked with headaches at the start of colds. Although, how cytokines may cause headaches and pain is not well understood.

Sinus Headaches

Your sinuses are a collection of cavities behind your cheeks, nose, and eyes. They make mucus to keep your nasal passages moist and help clean out dust, microorganisms, and other substances that don't belong there.

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

Nasal passage swelling and inflammation from colds can cause very painful headaches. Often, 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

Inflamed sinuses can also put pressure on the trigeminal nerve (the fifth cranial nerve). This pressure causes pain behind the face as well as nasal congestion.

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


Some studies have suggested that many headaches that show up without acute inflammation are actually migraines, not sinus headaches. However, it's easy to confuse the two because the location of the pain is similar, and a migraine can also irritate the trigeminal nerve.

Migraine vs. Sinus Headache

One way to tell a migraine from a sinus headache is to look at your other symptoms. For example, noise and bright light often make migraines worse. Migraines can also cause nausea or vomiting. Sinus headaches do not typically come with these symptoms.

Research has also shown that chronic sinus problems and migraines seem to have a complicated relationship. Sometimes, a person has two or more health conditions at once (comorbid conditions), with ongoing sinus pressure leading to migraines because there is irritation of the trigeminal nerve.

If you often get what you think are sinus headaches (with or without a cold), ask your healthcare provider if they could actually be migraines. Knowing which kind of headache is important to finding the right treatment.

Dehydration Headaches

Headaches are also a common symptom of dehydration, or when your body loses more water than it takes in. Even mild dehydration during a cold can trigger a headache or make an existing cold-related headache feel worse and contribute to fatigue.

It can be difficult to drink enough fluids when you're sick since you may not feel like eating or drinking or may have an irritated and sore throat.

Headaches from Poor Sleep

Cold symptoms, such as nasal congestion and coughing, can also keep you up at night or interrupt your sleep. Not getting enough rest or having poor quality sleep can also contribute to tension headaches or migraines or make existing headaches feel worse. Tension headaches cause a tightening or pressure on both sides of the head.

Cough Headaches

As a cold progresses, a lot of coughing, sneezing, and blowing your nose occurs. These straining actions can sometimes lead to a sudden increase in abdominal pressure that causes a headache.

Cough headaches are uncommon and are usually just due to the sudden pressure, but in some cases it can indicate a more serious underlying issue in the brain.

Due to the more serious potential causes, it's important to see a healthcare provider if you get a sudden severe headache that's triggered by coughing.

Treating Cold-Related Headaches

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


Drinking a lot of fluids is essential when you have a headache as well as when you're sick. Staying hydrated and drinking more water than you typically do will help thin the mucus so it can drain from your sinuses and will help prevent dehydration that can contribute to headaches or make them feel worse.

In addition, some people find relief from sinus pressure using sinus rinses. For example, try using a neti pot. You can also try saline nasal sprays, which work by clearing out your nasal passages so the mucus drains more easily.

OTC Medication

There are several over-the-counter pain medications that can also help relieve headache pain:

Do not give children aspirin since it can lead to a potentially fatal condition called Reye's syndrome that results in sudden brain damage and liver function problems. Children's acetaminophen or ibuprofen are safer alternatives for headaches in kids.

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

Expectorant and Decongestants

You can also take an expectorant or decongestant to help mucus drain and relieve the pressure in your sinuses. For some people, this can help relieve a headache from a cold.

These medications relieve congestion in different ways. A decongestant narrows blood vessels, making mucus easier to drain. An expectorant breaks up and thins mucus to drain more quickly. 


Running a humidifier—especially when you are sleeping at night—keeps your airways moist, thins mucus, and helps you breathe more easily. 

If you don't have a humidifier, try running a hot shower and sitting in a steamy bathroom. You can also try leaning over a steaming pot of water—just be very careful not to burn yourself. Putting a warm compress on your face can also be soothing and help loosen congestion.

When to See a Healthcare Provider

If you are concerned about your headache or feel like it might not be related to your cold, get in touch with your healthcare provider.

Headaches that are severe or come on suddenly can be an emergency. If this happens, don't wait. Call 911 or go to the nearest ER. Other signs that a headache is being caused by something serious include:

  • A stiff neck
  • Vomiting
  • Numbness or tingling in the arms
  • Sharp head pain triggered by coughing
  • Dizziness or loss of balance
  • Blurred or distorted vision


Headaches can be a cold symptom because the sinuses get inflamed, irritated, and congested. This can lead to head and facial pain. Sometimes, what feels like a cold-related headache is actually a migraine. However, migraines usually come with symptoms like light sensitivity and nausea that are not common with colds.

Treating cold headaches comes down to pain relief and treating congestion. OTC medications, decongestants, and expectorants are often enough, but increasing your fluid intake, using nasal rinses, inhaling steam, and using warm compresses can also help.

15 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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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.