COVID-19 causes a range of symptoms, including headaches that can vary from person to person. These headaches may feel like a pulsating or stabbing sensation in the head. They may last a few days and go away on their own or require treatment.
Headaches are a common health complaint. According to the National Headache Foundation, they may also be the result of various factors, including:
Researchers suggest that a headache is more likely to be due to COVID-19 if a person experiences fatigue and a loss of smell alongside it.
Is a headache a symptom of COVID-19?
Headaches can be a symptom of COVID-19.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the most common symptoms of COVID-19 are fever, a dry cough, and tiredness. However, less common COVID-19 symptoms can include:
- sore throat
- muscle aches and pains
- loss of smell or taste
- skin problems
Data from the ZOE COVID Symptom Study suggest that headaches could be a more common early sign of COVID-19 than other symptoms, such as a cough.
Headaches during illness with COVID-19 may be a direct result of the disease affecting the brain. However, they may also just be a symptom of being ill, such as from dehydration or hunger due to not consuming enough fluids or food.
Headaches are not necessarily a sign or symptom of COVID-19, though.
Many other conditions can cause headaches, including dehydration or a physical injury. The WHO estimates that about one-half of the adult population experiences at least one headache per year.
Fast facts on headache and COVID-19
According to ZOE:
- Headaches usually occur at the beginning of the condition.
- Headaches usually last 3–5 days.
- About 70% of adults with COVID-19 experience headaches compared with 60% of children with the condition.
- About 15% of people with COVID-19 said that their only symptom was a headache.
Many types of headaches exist, and they can range from mild to severe. Headaches typically cause pain in the head, which can occur in different locations and cause varying sensations.
There is some evidence that COVID-19 causes headaches with specific characteristics. A study in The Journal of Headache and Pain from 3,458 participants suggests that COVID-19 can cause a moderate-to-severe pulsating, pressing, or stabbing pain on both sides of the head.
Who is more likely to experience headaches with COVID-19?
The same study also found that COVID-19 headaches were more likely to occur in people who experienced gastrointestinal problems and loss of taste or smell.
These headaches may last for more than 3 days and are more likely to affect males than females, according to the research.
Some people may continue to experience headaches after recovering from COVID-19.
People recover from COVID-19 at different rates. They typically experience symptoms 4–5 days after infection with the SARS-CoV-2 virus. However, symptoms can take up to 14 days to emerge. Most people with mild or moderate symptoms will recover within a couple of weeks.
Some people will experience persistent symptoms after this period. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) refer to these cases as post-COVID conditions, where symptoms continue for at least 4 weeks.
People with post-COVID conditions can experience headaches that persist after other symptoms get better. Other people will experience headaches with other symptoms for longer than 4 weeks.
COVID-19 is a respiratory illness, but it can cause many types of symptoms, including neurological complications. The most common of these neurological complications are headaches and loss of taste or smell.
COVID-19 can also cause more serious neurological complications, such as dizziness and difficulty thinking or concentrating.
The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke states that COVID-19 can cause various long-term neurological complications, including:
How to treat a COVID-19 headache
Headaches can be mild, moderate, or severe. Some headaches will go away on their own, but others may require treatment to relieve the symptom.
Some tips for treating headaches include:
- resting in a dark room
- massaging the head
- using hot or cold compresses
- taking over-the-counter (OTC) pain relief medications, such as ibuprofen
Most mild or moderate COVID-19 cases require no treatment from a doctor. Resting at home and drinking plenty of fluids should help the symptoms go away within a couple of weeks.
According to the CDC, symptoms that require immediate medical attention include:
- breathing difficulties
- persistent chest pain or pressure
- skin color changes in the face
- inability to stay awake
People with COVID-19 who have a weakened immune system or chronic illness should also contact a doctor. It is also worth speaking with a doctor if symptoms persist longer than 2 weeks or start to worsen.
Headaches after the COVID-19 vaccine
According to the CDC, a headache is a common symptom of COVID-19 vaccines. Other common symptoms include:
- pain, flushed skin, and swelling at the injection site
- muscle pain
These side effects may be more severe after a person receives the second dose of the vaccine. They should go away within a few days.
A person can take OTC medication, such as ibuprofen or aspirin, to relieve these symptoms. However, they should not take this medication before the vaccine to prepare for side effects.
People should contact a doctor if they feel concerned about the severity or duration of their headache after receiving their COVID-19 vaccine.
Very rarely, COVID-19 can cause blood cells to lump together and form blood clots in the arteries and veins around the body. In some people, these blood clots could lead to a heart attack or stroke.
In other very rare cases, people have experienced blood clots after receiving their COVID-19 vaccine.
Headaches can be a symptom of a blood clot. Other symptoms may include:
- nausea and vomiting
- abdominal pain
- neck pain or stiffness
- speech difficulty
People should contact a doctor if they experience any of the above symptoms alongside a headache.
According to the National Blood Clot Alliance, blood clots due to COVID-19 are more likely to occur in people who are undergoing a hospital stay. Blood clots are also more likely to occur in people hospitalized for any reason. The CDC recommends the following tips for a person undergoing a hospital stay:
- Before entering the hospital: It is important to make doctors aware of any personal or family history of blood clots and establish a plan to prevent them from occurring.
- During the hospital stay: A person should discuss the signs and symptoms of blood clots with doctors and make a plan for returning home.
- After a hospital stay: Once back at home, a person should take medications as a doctor has prescribed them. The person should move their limbs as much as possible, getting external help if they are unable to leave their bed or chair. They should watch closely for symptoms of blood clots.
COVID-19 causes a wide range of symptoms, including headaches. Headaches are less common than other symptoms of COVID-19, such as fever. In some cases, the headache may be due to another condition.
COVID-19 headaches may feel like a pulsating or stabbing sensation in the head. They may last for more than 3 days, and a person may be more likely to present with fatigue and loss of smell.
Headaches due to COVID-19 may go away on their own. Some people may benefit from treatments to reduce pain, such as OTC pain relief medication.
Headaches may sometimes be a symptom of a blood clot, but this is extremely rare.
A person should always contact a doctor for severe symptoms from COVID-19 or after receiving a vaccine, such as breathing difficulties and chest pain.