With buzzwords like “COVID toe” and “COVID headache” filling out an already long list of potential COVID-19 symptoms, it’s easy to become worried about regular old headaches as you parse through the jargon and misinformation. The truth is, COVID research is still developing and each person’s coronavirus experience is as varied as it is personal. That said, we know headaches often play a role, from symptoms to recovery to vaccination. Here’s how those COVID headaches manifest.
As a Symptom
Among the list of COVID-19 symptoms, headaches sit right alongside a fever, coughs, breathing issues, nausea, a loss of taste or smell, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. One of the coronavirus’s key difficulties is its litany of possible symptoms, but some reports suggest that COVID headaches do have some defining features. Speaking to Novant Health in late 2020, neurologist and headache specialist Dr. Megan Donnelly describes headaches as a “presenting” symptom, noting that they often appear before those infected even develop a cough. Often, the headache occurs around the same time the infected person begins to lose their sense of taste or smell.
In an interview with Hartford HealthCare in 2020, HHC Headache Center specialist Dr. Sandhya Mehla says, “It is estimated that headache is a symptom in about 13 percent of patients with COVID-19,” making it “the fifth-most common COVID-19 symptom after fever, cough, muscle aches and trouble breathing.”
What Does a COVID Headache Feel Like?
Neurology Advisor and a study published in The Journal of Headache and Pain agree with the possibility that headaches may be an early symptom of COVID-19, but what does a COVID headache feel like compared to a typical “I’ve had a long day” headache? And how long does a COVID headache last?
As a COVID-19 symptom, headaches are often migraine-like, featuring a throbbing, stabbing or pressing pain that’s aggravated by movement, light or sound. Characteristically, they are more painful and appear more suddenly. Likewise, it’s common for those who experience headaches as a symptom of COVID to have no prior history of headaches. While the length of the symptomatic headache can vary just as much as a normal headache, the Journal of Headache and Pain points out that one lasting more than 72 hours is a significant variable that differentiates the COVID headache from other types of neurological pain.
So how long does a headache last? Unfortunately, many patients have reported experiencing persistent headaches for days or even months after their COVID-19 recovery. Dr. Donnelly describes this lingering COVID headache as “severe-pressure pain” that, compared to the throbbing, light-and-sound-sensitive nature of a migraine, features “more of a whole-head pressure.”
Speaking to Norton Healthcare, neurologist Brian M. Plato, D.O., says, “Imagine a 24/7 headache for a period of three months or longer. We’re seeing a lot of individuals who were sick with COVID-19 months ago. Even though they no longer have the virus, they still continue to have headaches as a predominant and lingering symptom.” Plato and other experts advise any COVID survivors experiencing these lingering headaches to contact their primary care doctor or a neurologist, who may be able to treat COVID headaches with methods such as steroids or gabapentin.
Vaccination and COVID Headaches
Alongside a bit of pain and swelling at the site of the injection, the CDC reports that tiredness, muscle pain, chills, fever, nausea and, yes, headaches are all common side effects of COVID-19 vaccination. In this case, the headache and other side effects are good news — they’re signs that the shot is working and that your body is building up a protective barrier against the disease. While these side effects may interfere with your day-to-day routine a bit, they’re likely to fade within a matter of days. And compared to life without a COVID vaccine, that’s really not much of a headache at all.
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Dan Ketchum has been an LA-based freelance writer for over a decade, with past work published by USA Today, The Seattle Times and The San Francisco Chronicle’s SFGate. In the healthcare realm, he’s grateful to have collaborated with organizations such as LIVESTRONG, AZ Central Healthy Living, Eucerin, Jillian Michaels, Healthfully and Cetaphil.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention - Covid-19: Symptoms
Novant Health - Covid-19 and Headaches: What You Need to Know
Neurology Advisor - Headache May Be an Early, Isolated Feature of Covid-19
BMC: The Journal of Headache and Pain - “Headache Characteristics in Covid-19 Pandemic - Survey Study”
Norton Healthcare - After Recovering from Covid-19, Some Get Persistent, Debilitating Headaches
Hartford HealthCare - Covid-19 Side Effect: A Headache That Lasts Longer Than the Virus
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention - Covid-19: Possible Side Effects