Is a Headache a Symptom of COVID-19?

Is this another warning sign of COVID-19 to watch for?

As of spring of 2022, Omicron continues to spread around the world. We've learned that the variant is more transmissible but also can be less severe than previous variants. And while some Omicron symptoms are different from those of previous COVID-19 variants, one symptom has remained consistent: headache.

In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) list of COVID-19 symptoms cites headaches as one of the most common.

A study of over 4,000,000 participants in the UK corroborates that fact. The Zoe COVID Study—conducted by researchers from health science company ZOE and King's College London in the United Kingdom—released data in December of 2021 showing that the top five symptoms reported for Omicron infection were runny nose, fatigue (either mild or severe), sneezing, sore throat, and headache.

Why would COVID-19—a respiratory disease—cause a headache?

"Many viruses, from those that cause the common cold to the flu to COVID-19, cause the body to respond in ways that try to destroy the infection," William W. Li, MD, author of Eat to Beat Disease, told Health. "One response is that immune cells release proteins called cytokines that cause inflammation, fever, and fatigue. Along with these reactions can come a headache."

As a "non-specific symptom" of infection and other health conditions, it's difficult to say why some people with COVID-19 get headaches while others don't. "It's not a common symptom of the illness, and it may also be related to other underlying conditions a person suffers," said Dr. Li.

A headache can be caused by many factors related to COVID-19, such as the physical discomfort of constant coughing and a stuffy sinus. "Even frequent nose blowing can cause a headache," said Dr. Li. Anxiety, a lack of sleep, not eating properly, and failing to stay hydrated can also lead to headaches.

If one of your COVID-19 symptoms is headache, Dr. Li recommended continuing with pain relief medications unless your doctor tells you to discontinue them. "While there were early reports that some non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications, such as ibuprofen, were not recommended for COVID-19, these have not been borne out by experience in hospitals," added Dr. Li.

A July 2021 review of existing research on ibuprofen, which people often take to relieve headache pain, and COVID-19 found no association between ibuprofen and serious effects such as respiratory complications or increased risk of death.

If you have COVID-19 or suspect you might have it, and you're in any doubt about which pain relief meds to take for a headache, ask your doctor to be on the safe side, suggested Dr. Li. Beyond that, try to eat plenty of nutritious foods, keep your fluid intake up, and get as much rest as possible.

The information in this story is accurate as of press time. However, as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, it's possible that some data have changed since publication. While Health is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations for their own communities by using the CDC, WHO, and their local public health department as resources.

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