Even months into the pandemic, there’s still a lot we don’t know about COVID-19. That makes it easy to see a phrase like “COVID migraine” mentioned online and immediately start worrying. Is migraine a symptom of COVID-19? Can COVID-19 cause migraine? And how can you tell if an attack is a sign that you might have a dangerous disease?
Luckily, while plenty of things about COVID-19 are still unclear, experts have solid answers for the questions above.
Is “COVID migraine” a real thing?
First thing’s first: Is there even such a thing as a “COVID migraine” (also called “pandemic migraine”)? Turns out that the answer to that depends on what you mean by the question.
It’s important to note that COVID-19 can cause headaches. In fact, about 13% of COVID-19 patients report headache as a symptom, making it the fifth most common one. Even some people who have recovered from the disease continue getting regular headaches with no other cause.
But as we all know, “headache” and “migraine” don’t mean the same thing. And scientists aren’t entirely sure what types of headaches COVID-19 can actually cause. Some doctors say COVID-19 headaches aren’t migraine attacks, but others argue that the disease’s tendency to provoke a strong reaction from the body’s immune system leads to increased inflammation in the brain, which is a suspected cause of migraine. There’s even been at least one case of COVID-19 causing a rare and painful thunderclap headache.
Is my headache a migraine attack or COVID-19?
While there’s really not a lot of data on this yet, a recent study published in the medical journal Headache aimed to draw a clear conclusion on COVID-19 and headaches. Focusing on 13 COVID-19 patients at a headache clinic, five of whom were migraine sufferers, the study found that COVID-19 headaches had many symptoms in common with migraine attacks. According to the research, both kinds of headaches can:
- cause throbbing pain
- last up to 72 hours
- get worse when you’re active
- include sensitivity to light, sound, or smell
- cause dizziness, nausea, and vomiting
However, the researchers also noted that some COVID-19 symptoms were unusual and not typically associated with migraine, including headaches that:
- cause pain on both sides of the head
- come on suddenly
- can cause a feeling of pressure in the head
- may also cause diarrhea, reduced appetite, or weight loss
- are more painful than your usual migraine headache
Migraine headaches, on the other hand, typically:
- cause pain on just one side of the head
- develop over several hours
- can include sinus, neck, or back pain
- may also include aura
- are triggered by stress, diet, or other factors
What does this mean for you? If your migraine attacks are no more severe than they used to be, you can probably rest assured that they aren’t a symptom of COVID-19—unless you’re experiencing other recognized symptoms. But you should always contact a doctor if there’s a sudden uptick in the severity of your attacks. That can be a sign of multiple potential issues, not just COVID-19.
Can people who haven’t had COVID-19 still get pandemic migraine?
While we can’t say for sure if COVID-19 itself causes migraine attacks, doctors are pretty much certain that pandemic life is increasing their frequency in people who already suffer from them. In a survey of migraine sufferers published in The Journal of Headache and Pain, nearly 60% of respondents said they’ve had more attacks since lockdowns began than they did in the previous months. 10% even reported that the increase changed their migraine from episodic (4-15 attacks a month) to chronic (15+ attacks a month).
What’s behind this? The challenges of pandemic life, tough enough to deal with on their own, are even more difficult for migraine sufferers. Shifting sleep and exercise routines, poor diets, and, of course, boatloads of stress are all facts of life in 2020—and they’re all known triggers. Even wearing a mask can sometimes lead to run-ins with triggers like forgetting to drink enough water. Not to mention the fact that it’s harder to get in-office treatments like Botox®.
How can I avoid attacks during the pandemic?
Unfortunately, COVID-19 is probably going to be sticking around for a lot longer than most of us expected back in March. The good news is that you don’t have to wait for the pandemic to end to take control of your migraine.
One way to get your attack frequency down is to get back to sleeping, eating, and exercising on a regular routine. Of course, it might be impossible for you to return to the schedule you had before, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find a new routine to suit your new normal. Don’t forget to set aside time for stress-busting activities like yoga and meditation. (Need some ideas? Check out our stress management tips.)
Another option would be trying a supplement (like CoQ10, magnesium, riboflavin, or all three) or a preventive medication (like antidepressants, anticonvulsants, or beta blockers). If you want to try a supplement or prescription preventive medication without having to see a doctor in person, you’ve come to the right place. Complete an online consultation and a Cove doctor will help you find the best treatment for your needs.
It’s going to take a long time for researchers to wrap their heads around every aspect of COVID-19, including long haul COVID, and its relationship with migraine is no exception. But if pandemic life has you struggling with more and more attacks, you don’t have time to wait for all the details to be discovered to take action.
Luckily, there are plenty of things you can do right now to keep your migraine frequency under control. Sticking to a schedule, managing your stress, and trying treatments are all great ways to make attacks less likely.
The information provided in this article is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. You should not rely upon the content provided in this article for specific medical advice. If you have any questions or concerns, please talk to your doctor.
Photo by Kate Trifo on Unsplash