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

By Claire Gillespie
April 02, 2020
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According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the most common symptoms of COVID-19, the illness caused by the new coronavirus, are fever, tiredness, and a dry cough—and some patients may have aches and pains, nasal congestion, runny nose, sore throat, or diarrhea.

A headache isn't a common symptom of the virus, but about 14% of people infected with corna have experienced it, according to the Report of the WHO-China Joint Mission on Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19). And as more people share their COVID-19 experiences on social media, it’s clear that some of those headaches are pretty intense. 

Why would COVID-19—a respiratory disease—cause a headache? And why are only some people experiencing this particular symptom? 

“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, tells 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,” says Dr. Li. 

A headache can be caused by many factors related to the coronavirus, such as the physical discomfort of constant coughing and a stuffy sinus. “Even frequent nose blowing can cause a headache,” saysDr. Li. Anxiety, a lack of sleep, not eating properly, and failing to stay hydrated can also lead to headache. 

If one of your COVID-19 symptoms is headache, Dr. Li recommends continuing with pain relief medications unless you’re told by your doctor 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,” he adds. 

A study published on March 30 in the journal ecancermedicalscience analyzed 89 existing studies on other coronavirus strains, such as SARS and MERS, plus existing literature on the new coronavirus. Researchers found no evidence against the use of ibuprofen, which people often take to relieve headache pain, for patients with COVID-19. 

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 headache, ask your doctor to be on the safe side, suggests 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 CDCWHO, and their local public health department as resources.

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