This week, HuffPost UK reader Mattie asked: “Does Covid-19 cause headaches and migraines?”
Headaches can occur for all kinds of reasons, but one thing has become increasingly clear as more and more people have fallen ill in the past nine months – they’re also one of the signs of Covid-19.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) lists the most common symptoms of Covid-19 as fever, dry cough and tiredness, while the NHS also acknowledges a loss of – or change to – taste or smell as a key sign. If you have any of these symptoms, you should self-isolate.
But there are many other symptoms that people with Covid-19 are experiencing. These are less common, says WHO, and include: aches and pains, headache, sore throat, nasal congestion, red eyes, diarrhoea, or a skin rash.
Dr David Strain, a clinical academic at the University of Exeter Medical School, tested positive for Covid-19 on November 10 and tells HuffPost UK that the second symptom he experienced, after losing his sense of smell, was a “migrainous headache” which he describes as “genuinely the worst headache of my life”.
Dr Strain, who is also a hospital consultant, says headache is a common symptom in the Covid-19 patients he sees and that the symptom tends to subside after about four to five days.
While we don’t know what exactly is causing these headaches, Dr Strain believes it has something to do with inflammation around the lining of the brain (which is considered one of the possible causes of migraine).
“This [inflammation] allows proteins to leak out of the blood vessels, which in turn triggers the pain,” he explains. Covid has been found to cause blood vessels to leak elsewhere in the body, so his theory is: why wouldn’t that happen in the brain, too?
In addition to more people experiencing headaches as a result of Covid-19, there has also been a general rise in headaches during the pandemic because of the sheer stress of it all.
Neurologist Dr Charisse Litchman, who is based in the US, told KDKA TV she’d noticed a 20% rise in headache complaints since the start of the pandemic, and attributed it to many reasons including increased stress, not exercising as much, and increased levels of screen-time.
Similarly, in the UK, the National Migraine Centre reported that many people with migraine have had an increase in their attacks since the lockdown, which can be attributed to lifestyle changes such as lack of sleep, dietary changes and even just being confined to the home.
So how can you tell what’s a normal headache, and what’s a Covid headache?
According to the Covid Symptom Study app, which has been monitoring people’s symptoms in the UK since the start of the pandemic, the most commonly experienced early symptoms of the virus – we’re talking in the first seven days – are headache (82%) and fatigue (72%), and this is the case for all age groups. Only 9% of adults who tested positive for the virus didn’t experience headache or fatigue.
We also know that some people with long-term symptoms of the virus – a phenomenon dubbed long Covid – have reported prolonged headaches since becoming ill, which can impact a person’s quality of life.
Just having a headache on its own would not warrant being tested, however. The same study found just 1% of people who reported fatigue and/or headache on the app ended up testing positive for Covid – so unless there are other symptoms, it’s “unlikely to be indicative of Covid”.
But in some parts of the UK, people who develop headaches are now being urged to get tested for the virus – even if it’s a stand alone symptom.
Dr Richard Harling, Staffordshire County Council’s director of health and care, recently urged people in Staffordshire to get tested for other symptoms – headaches, runny nose, sneezing, extreme tiredness, aches and pains, and a sore throat – as a precaution.
“We are learning that people can show a variety of symptoms, so we think it makes sense for anyone who has these other symptoms to think about if they want to get tested as a precaution,” Dr Harling told the Express & Star.
If you do think you have Covid and are struggling with the headaches, the National Migraine Centre recommends paracetamol which can help to reduce pain, and also control a high temperature if you have a fever.
It’s something Dr Strain is taking himself. From personal experience he has found “regular paracetamol, caffeine, hydration and citrus fruit to be of benefit”.
“I would advise anyone to rest, stay within the energy envelope (i.e. don’t try and push themselves to do anything), take plenty of fluids and, if possible, avoid getting it in the first place,” he adds.
Experts are still learning about Covid-19. The information in this story is what was known or available at the time of publication, but guidance could change as scientists discover more about the virus. To keep up to date with health advice and cases in your area, visit gov.uk/coronavirus and nhs.uk.