One reason you may get a headache as part of your head cold is the release of molecules called cytokines. These molecules are released as part of the body's immune defense against viruses and are known to cause headaches. Additionally, swelling and thick secretions accumulating in the sinus cavities may lead to headache symptoms and sinus pain.
How do you know when you have a common head cold as opposed to a flu virus? Common cold symptoms are less serious than flu symptoms and they usually come on more slowly. You can expect a common cold to last as long as 10 days. Symptoms usually start two to three days after exposure to a cold virus — the incubation period.
There is no cure for the common cold because viruses, unlike bacteria, do not respond to antibiotics. And unlike the flu, common colds can't be prevented because they are caused by more than 200 different viruses. So if you have a headache and other symptoms due to a common cold, all you can do is take care of yourself and wait it out.
Head colds and chest colds are the two main types of colds, but they are caused by the same type of virus. If a cold goes down into your chest, you will probably notice a cough along with your stuffy head, headache, nasal congestion, and other symptoms. Having frequent colds does not mean you are getting different types of colds, but that you are getting exposed to different cold viruses. Summer colds are less frequent than winter colds, but they are not different types of colds.
Cold Remedies for Headache and Other Symptoms
There is no remedy that can make your cold go away any faster, but there are things you can do to relieve some of the symptoms, especially when you need a clear head at work:
- Add moisture. Moistening your upper airway can help loosen secretions and can relieve pressure and congestion. You can do this with saline nasal drops, a humidifier, or by taking a hot, steamy shower. Drinking plenty of fluids helps keep your mucous thin and moving.
- Over-the-counter pain relievers. Acetaminophen (Tylenol) will help alleviate headache, sore throat, and fever. Make sure not to use aspirin as a pain reliever for kids, as it could lead to a dangerous condition known as Reye's syndrome.
- Decongestant nasal sprays. These sprays will open up your nasal passages but must be used with caution, because they can cause a rebound effect that makes your nose even stuffier than before. Don't use these sprays for children unless you check with your doctor first.
- Cough and cold preparations. These over-the-counter medicines may combine decongestants, cough suppressants, mucous thinners, and pain relievers. They are mostly safe for adults, but carefully read the side effects. Those that contain antihistamines can make you drowsy and should not be used at work if you need to be alert. These medications are not recommended for children.
If over-the-counter medications don’t help and your headaches persist, it’s time to consider other possible causes. One possibility is a sinus infection. With a sinus infection, pain is usually localized over one or more of the sinus areas in the forehead, around the eyes, and over the upper teeth. Sinus pain may get worse with movement. "A cold typically lasts for less than five days and is due to a virus," says Jordan S. Josephson, MD, a sinus specialist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. "Secretions from a cold usually clear over time and do not need to be treated with an antibiotic. However, if your cold lasts more than seven days or you have increasing fever or pain, consider seeing your doctor to make sure you have not developed a sinus infection. If the mucous turns yellow or green, then an antibiotic may be needed."
Any time a headache is the only symptom, it is not likely to be due to a cold, flu, or sinus infection. You may be experiencing a particular type of headache:
- Tension headache or muscle contraction headache. This is the most common type of headache. Up to 75 percent of people get tension headaches. It may occur frequently, even daily. The pain is usually on both sides of the head and is often described by patients as a throbbing headache.
- Migraine headache. Six percent of men and 18 percent of women experience migraine headaches. The pain is most often one-sided and pulsating, but can also exist all over the head. Migraine headaches usually come on gradually, reach a peak, and then slowly decrease. The pain may be more severe than tension headache pain and accompanied by visual disturbances and nausea at the onset. Migraine headaches may last from 4 to 72 hours and are often made worse by bright light and movement.
- Cluster headache. Less common than a migraine or tension headache, cluster headaches occur in about 1 percent of the population, mostly in men. The pain is severe, one-sided (often around the eye), and can be accompanied by nasal congestion and tearing of the eye. The headache occurs in clusters, from every other day up to eight times a day for several weeks.
When Headache Is a Symptom of a Related Condition
In most cases headaches, sinus discomfort, and other symptoms caused by the common cold do not require a call to your doctor. While a headache is a common cold symptom, it can also signal a larger medical problem. If your headache lasts much longer than five days, is severe, or accompanied by vomiting or visual disturbances, make an appointment with your doctor right away. Know that any time a headache is the only symptom, it is not likely to be due to a cold, flu, or sinus infection.
Here are some symptoms of related conditions that should prompt a call, especially if you’re not sure if it’s a cold or allergies or something else entirely:
- Severe cold symptoms during pregnancy
- Congestion that lasts more than two weeks
- Severe headaches
- High fever that lasts more than three days
- Trouble breathing
- Ear pain or ear discharge
- Persistent nausea or vomiting
- Influenza or cold symptoms that improve and then come back
Mild headaches and other head cold symptoms that go along with a common cold are usually nothing to be concerned about. The average adult gets two to four colds every year. Call your doctor if you have symptoms that suggest other causes of headaches or other related conditions that may require attention.
Bird Flu is another name for Avian Influenza (AI). There are many different strains of the bird flu virus. The strains are classified as "low pathogenicity" or "highly pathogenic". These classifications refer to the potential for the viruses to kill poultry, not infect people.
The highly pathogenic strains (HPAI) are usually not found in the United States (US). However, in 2014 the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) confirmed HPAI in Washington state and Oregon. It is widely believed that the highly pathogenic avian influenza virus (HPAIV) subtype H5N8 arrived from Asia/Siberia into North America with migratory birds although other avenues of introduction, such as movement of infected poultry products or people traveling between Asia and North America, cannot be ruled out. Once in North America this virus mixed with low pathogenic North American influenza viruses to create novel Eurasian/North American HPAIV subtypes, H5N2 and H5N1. All three virus subtypes were first detected in British Columbia (H5N2) and in northern Washington State (H5N8, H5N2, and H5N1) in November and December, 2014.
After intensive surveillance of hunter-harvested waterfowl in the Pacific Flyway by state and federal agencies during December, 2014, and in January, and February 2015, it was found that the H5N8 and H5N2 subtypes had become widely established in North American waterfowl within that flyway. It is likely that these waterfowl are playing some role in moving these viruses within the flyway.
Disclaimer: The patient-oriented information on this website is not intended to replace a consultation with a physician. The information is intended to help patients understand their symptoms and allergic diseases(s) better and make the time spent with a doctor more productive.
Avian Flu Symptoms: How Can You Tell If You Have H5N1?
North America's first death from the H5N1 virus, also known as avian or bird flu, was reported in Alberta today, contracted by a victim who had just returned from China. While officials have been quick to reassure Canadians that this was an isolated incident and not related to the seasonal flu, this potentially fatal illness has many wondering about the symptoms of this influenza.
Most avian flu viruses do not infect humans, but some, like the highly pathogenic H5N1, can cause severe infections, according to the U.S. National Institutes of Health.
When the H5N1 strain of bird flu appears in humans, it mimics a severe case of the flu, like H1N1 (swine flu). Flu.gov, the U.S. site for flu information, notes that symptoms of H5N1 in humans include:
- Acute respiratory distress
- Shortness of breath/difficulty breathing
The diagnosis of H5N1 based on symptoms alone is difficult because they are so similar to other flu strains; laboratory testing is required to confirm infection, according to the the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
The bird flu is generally spread to people through direct contact with infected birds or poultry livestock. The H5N1 virus can live in the environment for extended periods, but cannot be contracted by eating properly handled, cooked poultry or eggs, and thus far has not shown any sign of spreading easily from person to person, though that is always a likelihood, warns the CDC. As the Lung Association notes, there has been limited transmission in the case of long-term contact with sick relatives.
Complications from the avian flu include a range of severe illnesses, including:
- Altered mental state
Seniors may feel weak and sometimes disoriented without showing other symptoms.
The flu is often confused with other respiratory infections such as the cold. To learn more, read Differences between Flu and Cold.
Generally, the flu can be treated at home. In certain cases however, you must see a doctor.
You should seek medical help the same day if you have flu-like symptoms and also one of the following:
- Increasing or persistent pain when breathing
- A rising fever, or one that has lasted for over 5 days
If symptoms worsen or do not improve after 7 days, you should also consult a doctor the same day.
You can find a resource near you offering medical consultation on the same or next day. To learn more or to find one of those resources, consult the Finding a Resource Offering Medical Consultation On The Same or Next Day page.
You must go to emergency immediately if you have flu-like symptoms and also one of the following:
- Breathing difficulty that persists or worsens
- Blue lips
- Intense chest pain
- Intense headache that persists or worsens
- Drowsiness, difficulty staying awake, weakness
- Confusion, disorientation
- Seizures (body stiffens and muscles contract in a jerky and involuntary manner)
- No urination for 12 hours, excessive thirst
If your baby is less than 3 months old and has a fever, bring him or her to emergency immediately.
If your child has a fever and appears very sick, lacks energy and refuses to play, bring him or her to a doctor immediately, or call Info-Santé 811.
If you require immediate help to get to emergency, call 9-1-1.
Some situations require you to be evaluated by a nurse who can offer specific advice regarding your condition. The nurse can also assess whether or not you should see a doctor immediately.
You should call Info-Santé 811 if you or your child are in one of the following situations:
- You are short of breath
- You have difficulty breathing
- You are unsure whether or not to see a doctor
Herpes Simplex — This virus causes genital herpes, which are painful blisters in the genital area, or cold sores. Severe conditions are more common in the advanced stage of AIDS.
Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) — This condition is considered the most common sexually transmitted disease (STD) in the United States. It can cause warts on the anus, cervix, esophagus, penis, urethra, vagina and vulva. Studies have shown that certain types of HPV can contribute to the development of cervical and anal cancer. Individuals with HIV and AIDS are at increased risk for developing precancerous and cancerous lesions.
Liver Disease — Liver disease is one of the leading causes of death among AIDS patients, especially liver disease caused by the hepatitis B and hepatitis C virus. Many drugs used in the treatment of HIV and AIDS can cause liver disease or hepatitis. It is important that patients infected with hepatitis receive treatment and follow-up care.
Coccidiomycosis — This infection is caused by inhaling an infective fungus called Coccidioides immitis, found mainly in contaminated soil in the southwestern United States, Mexico, Central America and parts of South America. The lungs are most commonly affected by this infection. In severe cases, it can involve the kidneys, lymph system, brain and spleen. Symptoms include cough, weight loss and fatigue. Meningitis is a common complication when left untreated.
Histoplasmosis — This infection almost always involves the lungs, although other organs may be affected. The fungus that causes this condition is found in southern parts of the United States and South America. It is usually found in soil contaminated with bird droppings and must be inhaled to cause infection.
Signs and symptoms include high fever; weight loss; respiratory complaints; an enlarged liver, spleen, or lymph nodes; depressed production of white cells, red blood cells and platelets from the bone marrow; and life-threatening, unstable, low blood pressure.
Pneumocystis Carinii — This condition occurs when a fungus infects the lungs. Symptoms may include fever, cough, difficulty breathing, weight loss, night sweats and fatigue.
It is most likely to occur when the CD4+ T cell count falls below 200 cells per cubic millimeter of blood. Preventative treatment may be administered when the CD4+ T cell count falls below 200 cells per cubic millimeter of blood. Treatment is usually trimethoprim-sulfamethoxazole, also called Septra or Bactrim, dapsone or atovoquone.
Recurrent Pneumonia — People with AIDS are at risk for recurrent bacterial pneumonia. Bacteria can infect the lungs, which may lead to problems ranging from a mild cough to severe pneumonia. Recurrent pneumonia is most likely to occur when the CD4+ T cell count falls below 200 cells per cubic millimeter of blood.
Tuberculosis (TB) — This is a serious, and often deadly, bacterial infection that primarily infects the lungs. TB is transmitted when a person with active TB coughs or sneezes, releasing microscopic particles into the air. If inhaled, these particles may transmit the condition.
Once infected by TB, most people remain healthy and develop only latent infection. People with latent infection are neither sick nor infectious. However, they do have the potential to become sick and infectious with active TB. It can occur at any CD4+ T cell level but especially when the CD4+ T cell count falls below 350 cells per cubic millimeter of blood.
Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma — Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma is a disease in which tumors develop from white blood cells in the lymphatic system. It is another common disease associated with AIDS. See AIDS-related lymphoma.
Candidiasis — This is the most common HIV-related fungus infection. It can affect the entire body, but most commonly occurs in the mouth (thrush) or vagina. An overgrowth of yeast causes white patches on gums, tongue or lining of the mouth, pain, difficulty in swallowing and loss of appetite. Candida in the esophagus, trachea, bronchi or lungs is AIDS defining.
Herpes Simplex — This virus causes cold sores or genital herpes, which are painful blisters in the genital area. Chronic herpes simplex virus (HSV) lesions and severe mucocutaneous HSV disease are common in the advanced stages of AIDS.
No more effective than observation
Cochrane review of seven RCTs14
No more effective than placebo for reducing duration or severity of cold symptoms
RCT = randomized controlled trial.
Information from references 7, 11, 14, and 23 through 28.
Therapies Not Effective for the Common Cold in Adults
Cochrane review of nine RCTs7
No difference in symptoms or purulent rhinitis compared with placebo
Antihistamine monotherapy (sedating and nonsedating)
Cochrane review of three RCTs11
No more effective than placebo
Cochrane review of 32 RCTs23
No more effective than placebo
Cochrane review of two RCTs11
No more effective than placebo for cough
American College of Chest Physicians24
RCT with viral challenge25
No more effective than placebo for cold symptoms
No more effective than placebo
Nasal irrigation with hypertonic or normal saline
No more effective than observation
Cochrane review of seven RCTs14