COVID-19 is a respiratory illness that can affect your lungs. It’s caused by the novel coronavirus that’s known in clinical terms as SARS-CoV-2.

Several symptoms of COVID-19 have been identified. One of these symptoms is a headache.

Is a headache a common symptom, and how does it differ from tension or cluster headaches, or migraine?

For answers to these questions and more, continue reading as we take a closer look at COVID-19 and headache, other symptoms to look out for, and when it’s important to get medical care.

A headache is a potential symptom of COVID-19. What point in the infection it typically occurs is still being determined.

To date, a headache has been reported both early and late in the infection phase, with a later headache possibly being associated with worsening illness.

A headache can also be a symptom of COVID-19 in people with migraine. In these cases, headaches have been reported as occurring prior to the onset of more typical COVID-19 symptoms, like fever and cough.

Studies have begun to address how common a headache is with COVID-19. The exact numbers can vary based on the population being studied. Research has found it occurred in around 11 to 34 percent of people hospitalized with COVID-19.

This estimate is in line with reports from both the World Health Organization (WHO) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):

  • A WHO report that looked at over 55,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 found that a headache was reported in 13.6 percent of these cases.
  • A CDC report on people hospitalized with COVID-19 found that a headache was reported 9.6 to 21.3 percent of the time, depending on the age of the individual. A headache was found to be a more common symptom in people under the age of 65.

Headaches are a common health-related complaint. Because of this, you may be wondering how you can tell if a headache is due to COVID-19 or not.

Currently, the exact characteristics of a COVID-19 headache are poorly defined. This can make a COVID-19 headache difficult to differentiate from other types of headaches.

Reports have described the following characteristics of a COVID-19 headache:

  • is moderate to severe in intensity
  • causes a pulsing or pressing sensation
  • occurs on both sides of your head (bilateral)
  • may get worse when you bend over

How it may differ from migraine

For people who have migraine attacks, a COVID-19 headache has also been described as moderate to severe. However, unlike headache resulting from migraine, it doesn’t occur with other common migraine symptoms, such as sensitivity to light and sound.

As with other viral illnesses, a COVID-19 headache may occur with fever. Fever is uncommon with migraine, as well as with other types of headaches, like tension or cluster headaches.

If you develop a headache and are concerned about COVID-19, take your temperature and assess any additional symptoms. If you have a fever or other symptoms of COVID-19, you may want to get tested for the virus.

While a headache is a potential symptom of COVID-19, there are other symptoms that are more common. These include:

Additional symptoms that may occur at a similar frequency, or less often than a headache, include:

If you develop a headache or other symptoms, and are concerned that you may have COVID-19, do these three things:

  • Isolate. Stay at home and distance yourself from others in your household. Try to use a separate bedroom and bathroom. If you must be around others, wear a face covering and stay at least 6 feet away from other people in your home.
  • Contact your doctor. Let your doctor know about your symptoms. They will advise you on how to care for yourself. They may also recommend you get tested for the virus that causes COVID-19.
  • Keep an eye on your symptoms. If you find that your symptoms are beginning to worsen, don’t hesitate to seek prompt medical attention.

If you have a headache due to COVID-19 or other underlying causes, there are steps you can take at home to help ease your headache pain. For instance:

  • Use over-the-counter (OTC) medications. Taking an OTC pain medication like acetaminophen (Tylenol), aspirin, or ibuprofen (Advil) may help to relieve pain and reduce fever.
  • Apply a cool compress. Using a cool compress on your forehead may help with headache relief. It can also help you stay cool if you have a fever.
  • Try a gentle massage. Gently massaging around your forehead or temples during a headache may help ease your symptoms.
  • Get some rest. If headache pain is severe, try lying down for a bit and closing your eyes.

While most cases of COVID-19 are mild, in some people the disease can progress to a much more severe illness. This typically happens 5 to 8 days after symptoms first appear.

There are several symptoms that are warning signs of severe COVID-19 illness. If you experience any of the symptoms listed below, seek emergency medical attention:

A headache is a potential symptom of COVID-19. However, current evidence indicates that it’s less common than other COVID-19 symptoms, like fever, cough, fatigue, and shortness of breath.

COVID-19 headache has been reported in both early and later stages of illness, sometimes occurring along with fever. It’s been described as a pulsing headache that’s moderate to severe in intensity, often affecting both sides of the head.

If you develop a headache and suspect you may have developed COVID-19, isolate yourself at home and contact your doctor.

OTC medications, rest, and cool compresses may help to ease headache symptoms. Continue to monitor your symptoms as you recover.