As the coronavirus continues to circulate, it’s easy to have pandemic panic and assume any ailments you are experiencing are COVID-19 related. While headaches are a symptom of the coronavirus, they’re also a side effect of many more benign conditions. With stress, allergies, migraines, and the same old viruses we’ve been fighting for years still floating around, your headache could have any number of causes. Before convincing yourself that your pain is a COVID-19 symptom and rushing to the doctor’s office, take a moment to evaluate whether there are other reasons to assume your headache is a sign you have coronavirus.
A headache is surprisingly not a common symptom of the coronavirus, but it’s still worth keeping an eye out for. According to a report published by the World Health Organization (WHO), less than 14 percent of people reported having a headache as a symptom of coronavirus.
William W. Li, MD, author of Eat to Beat Disease, told Health that coronavirus headaches can be a result of “immune cells releasing proteins called cytokines that cause inflammation, fever, and fatigue.” Like other body aches, headaches can be a result of your body trying to combat infection.
But headaches are also far from unique to people suffering from viruses. “Headaches are a common experience for many adults. On its own, a headache should probably not be cause for alarm, especially if it behaves like other headaches you’ve experienced,” David Aronoff, MD, chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, told National Public Radio (NPR).
Dry cough: Cough was the second most common symptom after fever, though “coughing was not always there,” Stavropoulou notes. “So while we think it’s a main symptom, it appears only two out of three times for patients with COVID-19.”
That said, cough remains a “very, very common symptom of the pneumonia that the virus can cause,” says Aronoff. Given this fact, “if someone has a new cough or a new shortness of breath that’s cropped up in the last three days or so, they should definitely get tested.”
Shortness of breath: Stavropoulou’s review found that this symptom occurs more frequently in severe cases “and indeed, in some studies, was a marker of severe disease.” The two largest studies she looked at found that shortness of breath occurred in fewer than 8% of milder cases.
Aronoff went on to say that headaches are rarely the sole symptom present in a coronavirus patient. “If somebody is only going to use headache as a trigger to go get tested for COVID-19, that headache should be something that either is a headache that’s new for them or that is sticking around a bit longer than they are used to … or it’s associated with another symptom that may also be subtle, like fatigue or feeling kind of worn out,” he added. The best way to discern if your headache is a result of COVID-19 is to assess whether other coronavirus symptoms are occurring simultaneously.
If you are experiencing unusual headaches, pull up an updated list of coronavirus symptoms and check in with how your body is feeling. If you find that you have other symptoms, it’s worth getting tested for the coronavirus and self-isolating to prevent potentially transmitting the virus.