Headache headaches can last for weeks or even months after a positive COVID-19 test, with around-the-clock pain only separated by excruciating and extreme peaks.
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It’s one of the most common symptoms of a group known as long-distance COVID-19 drivers or those with ongoing problems related to the coronavirus, says headache specialist Emad Estemalik, MD.
Why does it happen? A definitive answer remains elusive, but there is no question that the problem persists in large numbers, as several studies show.
So let’s look at what we know.
New daily headache
A headache associated with a viral illness or infection isn’t particularly groundbreaking, but the situation is seen more often – and with greater pain intensity – in people after a COVID-19 diagnosis.
The condition is known as a new daily persistent headache and can last for months even in people who have only had a mild case of COVID-19.
“After recovery, you are left with a new headache that does not go away,” says Dr. Estemalik. “A patient will tell you that they have a 24/7 headache or pain that gets worse from time to time.”
If you have migraines or other headache conditions on a regular basis, the frequency may increase after a COVID-19 diagnosis. Again, this pain can last for weeks or even months.
Treatment of COVID-19 headache
Finding relief from a daily headache is not easy as there is no clear etiology or cause of the pain. Research has yet to figure out why the headache persists. Brain scans of people with persistent headaches are usually normal.
To make matters worse, headaches are often just one of many symptoms that COVID-19 long-distance drivers suffer from. Many also report tiredness, shortness of breath, sore joints, and chest pain.
With all of this in mind, “this is usually a very, very difficult headache to treat or manage,” notes Dr. Estemalik.
Providers typically use an “interdisciplinary approach” with a variety of treatment options to find out what works best. This can include a combination of medications, as well as psychological and physical rehabilitation techniques.
There’s no proven way to get results, says Dr. Estemalik: “The clinical judgment is very important to make the right decision.”
Home remedies for COVID-19 headaches
Most medicine cabinet cabinets contain a bottle of over-the-counter pain relievers – typically aspirin or ibuprofen – that are cranked up in search of relief when headaches occur regularly.
If you are dealing with a COVID-19 headache, you are probably going the same route.
A word of caution when doing this: do not rely on this approach for more than a week. “We sometimes see that these drugs cause so-called rebound headaches, or headaches from drug overuse,” says Dr. Estemalik.
The condition is exactly what it sounds like: a headache that arises from taking a drug frequently in a short period of time. Exceeding the daily dosage recommendations can trigger a rebound headache. Ditto for caffeine consumption with the medication.
If an over-the-counter medication isn’t providing the relief you normally see, take that as a sign. “Then you want to contact your GP to really address the problem,” says Dr. Estemalik.
Could this headache have nothing to do with the pandemic?
Headaches are a part of life. Statistically, 3 in 4 adults around the world will have a headache at some point this year. Another fact? There are more than 150 different types of headache.
So those headaches that are making you rub your temples cannot be related to a recent attack of COVID-19 or any sign that you have contracted the coronavirus.
It could be linked to allergies … or stress … or the weather … or even certain foods and drinks.
“If you have a headache on your own with no other symptoms, it probably has nothing to do with COVID-19,” says Dr. Estemalik. “But always keep track of your symptoms and if in doubt, see your doctor.”
The best defense against a COVID-19 headache
Dr. Estemalik has three pieces of advice for anyone looking to avoid the headache and cytokine storm that comes with COVID-19: Get the vaccine.
“Vaccination reduces the risk of infection and also has an incredible effect in reducing serious illness and long-term symptoms, even if you get it,” says Dr. Estemalik. “It is the best you can do to avoid the virus and its aftermath.”