There’s nothing quite like a throbbing headache to make an already-awful illness feel worse. Listed as one of the many potential symptoms of COVID-19, a headache may seem like the least of your worries when a flu-like illness hits your system. But for some people, a COVID headache tends to linger long after their initial positive test, research shows.
People living with “post-COVID headaches” are starting to share their experiences on social media, and many of them stress the impact the pain has on their day-to-day lives.
“I now get headaches behind my eyes every single day since I had COVID five weeks ago,” one person tweeted. “It’s super fun when 90% of my job is reading and staring at screens.” Another tweeted: “Caved and have booked an [appointment] with my [doctor] to talk about the insane post-covid headaches I’m getting one month post-infection. I rarely get them usually, but now nothing helps!”
Anecdotally, a headache seems to be a “very common [COVID] symptom,” especially in those who were likely sick with one of the omicron variants, Thomas Russo, MD, professor and chief of infectious disease at the University at Buffalo in New York, tells SELF.
Each person’s experience tends to be a bit different, depending on their susceptibility to headaches in general, the severity of their COVID infection, as well as any medications that were taken to help reduce pain, such as acetaminophen, ibuprofen, or naproxen, Amesh A. Adalja, MD, infectious disease expert and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells SELF.
He notes a headache usually lasts “a couple of days at max” when a person is sick with COVID. So why does the pain persist for weeks, even months, for some people? Here’s what experts know so far.
What do post-COVID headaches feel like and are they common?
The pain level tends to vary from person to person. “Viral illnesses are known to incite [migraine attacks] in individuals who have migraine,” Dr. Adalja says. In those who aren’t already susceptible to migraine-level pain, “post-COVID headaches often have more in common with tension or sinus headaches,” Amit Sachdev, MD, the director of the division of neuromuscular medicine at Michigan State University, tells SELF.
But it’s not totally clear how often this is happening to people who “recover” from their initial infection. Experts say, currently, headaches tend to be more common during illness, not after. “Most patients with COVID-associated headache will have it in the acute phase,” Dr. Sachdev says, which refers to the period of time a person feels sick with symptoms. “This is common for many viral illnesses, where pain either in the head or the body is common.”
However, one study published in October 2022 offers a bit more insight. Researchers analyzed data from 200 people who contracted COVID-19 and reported having symptoms post-infection, either four weeks from the date they received a positive test or four weeks after they were discharged from the hospital. (Both hospitalized and non-hospitalized people were included.) The researchers discovered that 66.5% of these people said they still had headaches, which was the second most common self-reported symptom next to fatigue. The ’sample size of the study is small and more research is needed, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) points out that neurological symptoms, headache included, are commonly reported in those diagnosed with long COVID.