Headaches and the Head Cold

Along with other common cold or flu symptoms — runny and stuffy nose, sore throat, cough, chills, and fever — you may have a headache. In a clinical trial that evaluated people with upper airway cold symptoms, more than 60 percent experienced headache as part of their head cold.

One of the reasons you may get a headache as part of your head cold is the release of molecules called cytokines. These molecules are released as part of your body’s immune defense against viruses and are known to cause headaches. Additionally, swelling and thick secretions accumulating in the sinus cavities may lead to headache symptoms and sinus pain.

Headaches and the Common Cold

How do you know when you have a common head cold as opposed to a flu virus? Common cold symptoms are less serious than flu symptoms and they usually come on more slowly. You can expect the duration of a common cold to be as long as 10 days. Symptoms usually start two to three days after you get exposed to a cold virus — the incubation period.

There is no cure for the common cold because viruses, unlike bacteria, do not respond to antibiotics, the preferred medicine. And unlike the flu, common colds can’t be prevented because they are caused by more than 200 different viruses. So if you have a headache and other symptoms due to a common cold, you just need to take care of yourself and wait it out.

Are There Different Types of Colds?

Head colds and chest colds are the two main types of colds, but they are caused by the same type of virus. If a cold goes down into your chest, you will probably notice a cough along with your stuffy head, headache, nasal congestion, and other symptoms. Having frequent colds does not mean you are getting different types of colds, but that you are getting exposed to different cold viruses. Summer colds are less frequent than winter colds, but they are not different types of colds.

Cold Remedies for Headache and Other Symptoms

There is no cold remedy that can make your cold go away any faster, but some over-the-counter cold and flu remedies that may relieve some of your symptoms, especially when you need a clear head at work. Add moisture. Moistening your upper airway can help loosen secretions and can relieve pressure and congestion. You can do this with saline nasal drops, a humidifier, or by taking a hot, steamy shower. Drinking plenty of fluids helps keep your mucous thin and moving.

Headaches From Other Causes

If over-the-counter medications don’t help and your headaches persist, it’s time to look at other possible causes. One possibility is a sinus infection. With a sinus infection, pain is usually localized over one or more of the sinus areas in the forehead, around the eyes, and over the upper teeth. Any time a headache is the only symptom, it is not likely to be due to a cold, flu, or sinus infection. You may be experiencing other types of headache.

When Headache Is a Symptom of a Related Condition

In most cases headaches, sinus discomfort, and other symptoms caused by the common cold do not require a call to your doctor. While a headache is a common cold symptom, it can also signal a larger medical problem. If your headache lasts much longer than five days, is severe, or accompanied by vomiting or visual disturbances, make an appointment with your doctor right away. Know that any time a headache is the only symptom; it is not likely to be due to a cold, flu, or sinus infection.

Here are some symptoms of related conditions that should prompt a call, especially if you’re not sure if it’s a cold or allergies or something else entirely:

Severe cold symptoms during pregnancy

Congestion that lasts more than two weeks

Severe headaches

High fever that lasts more than three days

Trouble breathing

Ear pain or ear discharge

Persistent nausea or vomiting

Influenza or cold symptoms that improve and then come back

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