What are ways to manage severe headache that comes along with flu?

Doctor's Answers (1)

Dr Beng Yeong Ng
5.0

"Psychiatrist with over 20 years of experience"

Two main types of headaches have been described: primary and secondary. Primary headaches are the result of small temporary changes to the nerves, blood vessels and muscles in the head, and include migraines and tension headaches. Secondary headaches are consequent to problems elsewhere in the head and are brought on by illnesses like colds and flu. These most commonly occur as congestion and/or sinus headaches.

Types and causes of headaches

Typically, people fully recover from the flu after a week or two with rest and medication. However, lasting symptoms, such as a headache, can indicate serious complications that may require emergency care. Sometimes, other causes of headaches need to be considered and these would include meningitis and aneurysm. Therefore, it is important to obtain a proper medical consultation.

The flu has a myriad of symptoms, including vomiting, nausea and headaches. While some may not experience headaches, those who do may become sensitive to light, sound and smell. If a headache is the only symptom or persists after other symptoms dissipate, it is likely not due to the flu or cold but a more specific type of headache, such as migraine or tension headaches.  A headache caused by the flu will usually occur alongside other symptoms. Suffering from a headache can make it difficult to think and concentrate, but this alongside other flu symptoms is often what makes having the flu such an unpleasant experience. This type of headache should not last for more than a few days.

When a person is suffering from a cold or flu, a headache can form as a result of infection-fighting molecules called “cytokines.” These little molecules are released by our immune system. While their primary function is to fight off infection, they can bring on inflammation which in turn can cause headache in some people.

Another cause of a headache is the pressure caused by the swelling and inflammation of the sinus cavities to accommodate increased mucus from a cold or flu. This can cause a feeling of persistent pain that a person feels during this bout of headache.

Sinus and congestion headaches have their own distinctive symptoms; patients report having a band of pressure wrapping around the head, especially around the nose and sinus areas. Any sudden movements of the head can aggravate it. Headaches like these are usually worse in the morning because mucus builds up whilst one is asleep, adding to the pressure.

Cures for headaches

Home remedies are often designed to make one feel more comfortable rather than to treat the underlying condition. For a headache, reducing the pressure inside the head and clearing any nasal congestion helps to reduce pain.

Some people find that a warm cloth on their face by their sinuses helps to loosen the mucus, thus reducing inflammation and congestion. Others say that congestion can also be cleared by inhaling steam with peppermint, or another menthol-based inhalation. Some patients report that a cool cloth on the forehead or temples helps to reduce dilation of blood vessels in the head easing the pressure and pain.

Lying down in a quiet room in which one can dim or turn off the lights often helps a person to feel better. However, lying flat can cause nasal congestion to worsen, and so it is worth lying slightly propped up.

Some doctors would prescribe medications like ibuprofen or acetaminophen to relieve the headache. Some healthcare providers may suggest using herbal remedies such as Echinaforce Echinacea tincture or tablets to help an individual fight off the infection more quickly. This contains fresh extracts of the Echinacea plant, which has been used for many years as a support for the immune system.

After ruling out any underlying causes of headache, a doctor may prescribe antiviral drugs, Oseltamivir or Zanamivir, in severe cases of the flu, or in vulnerable patients, such as the elderly.  More commonly, there are several flu remedies available over-the-counter, often containing paracetamol or aspirin, designed to reduce fever. If this is achieved, then the headache is likely to ease.

Common antiviral prescriptions include zanamivir, oseltamivir (Tamiflu) and peramivir. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) also approved a new medication called baloxavir marboxil (Xofluza) in October of 2018. Antiviral medications must be taken within 48 hours of the onset of symptoms in order to be effective.

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All content posted is for general informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice. This Q&A is not a patient consultation and any information provided herein is not intended to replace consultation with a qualified medical professional. If you think you may have a medical emergency, call your doctor immediately. Always seek the advice of your doctor before starting or changing treatment.

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