As Omicron continues to spread rapidly across the country—and the world—it’s become clear that some Omicron symptoms are different from those of previous COVID-19 variants. People are reporting less loss of taste and smell and more cold-like symptoms, for starters. And there’s one symptom in particular that keeps coming up with Omicron: a headache.
Early data from the U.K. published in the BMJ lists headache as one of the most common symptoms of Omicron, along with a runny nose and fatigue. Twitter is also flooded with anecdotal reports of headaches tied to Omicron.
Data from the Washington State Department of Health released last week show just how common a headache is with Omicron: A whopping 65% of patients reported having one, making it the most common symptom the health department detected in people with the variant.
Of course, headaches are common and can be caused by a slew of different things. So, what should you do if you develop a headache right now? Doctors break it down.
Why might Omicron cause a headache?
It’s important to note that a headache isn’t a new symptom of COVID-19. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) cites headache as one of the most common COVID-19 symptoms in a list that hasn’t been updated since February 2021. Other symptoms include:
Fever or chills
Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
Muscle or body aches
New loss of taste or smell
Congestion or runny nose
Nausea or vomiting
That said, many are pointing out that a headache seems to be more common with Omicron than it was with Delta and other variants, and the data seem to back that up.
But…why? “Many respiratory viruses—including COVID—cause headaches,” says infectious disease expert Amesh A. Adalja, M.D., a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.
Doctors say there can be a few reasons why this happens with Omicron. “The general thought is that your body is experiencing an inflammatory reaction as it fights off the virus,” says William Schaffner, M.D., an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. “A headache, along with fatigue, fever, and other signs are all part of that inflammatory symptom complex.”
But Omicron in particular seems to focus more on the upper respiratory tract, which includes your sinuses, says Thomas Russo, M.D., professor and chief of infectious disease at the University at Buffalo in New York. “A headache commonly occurs with inflammation of the sinuses,” he points out. Add in other factors like the stress of having COVID-19, and Dr. Russo says it’s “highly plausible” that people infected with Omicron would develop a headache.
There’s also this to consider, too, per Dr. Adalja: Symptoms of Omicron are more mild in general than previous variants—especially in people who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19—and that may make symptoms like a headache more noticeable than it was with previous variants.
What does an Omicron headache feel like?
“Headache” is a pretty broad term that can range from having a minor twinge to a full-blown migraine. But Dr. Schaffner says that an Omicron headache is “more likely to be frontal,” meaning you’ll probably feel it in your forehead vs. the back of your head.
“You may also tap over your sinuses in your forehead and cheekbone and have pain,” Dr. Russo says.
What to do if you develop a COVID-19-related headache right now
If you happen to get a headache right now, Dr. Adalja says you shouldn’t jump to conclusions. “An isolated headache is not something that I would attribute to COVID-19 because there are many, many causes of headaches,” he says.
But, if you develop a headache along with other COVID-19 symptoms, Dr. Schaffner says it’s time to take a test. You also might want to consider getting tested if you develop a headache and you’ve had a recent known exposure to COVID-19, Dr. Russo says. “If you’re in a household where most people are positive, for example, it may be a harbinger of things to come,” he adds.
How to treat a headache from Omicron
The best way to treat a headache due to Omicron is the same way you’d treat a headache in most other situations, Dr. Schaffner says. He recommends taking acetaminophen to reduce your pain and making sure you continue to drink plenty of fluids (dehydration can make your headache worse).
“If that doesn’t work, up your game to NSAIDs like ibuprofen or naproxen,” Dr. Russo says. (These medications help block pain and reduce inflammation in a different way from acetaminophen.) And, if your headache seems to be related to inflammation in your sinuses, Dr. Russo suggests taking a decongestant as well to help relieve pressure in the area.
Again, though, if you happen to develop a headache but have no other symptoms of COVID-19, you shouldn’t panic and assume you have the virus. “It could be from anything,” Dr. Schaffner says.
This article is accurate as of press time. However, as the COVID-19 pandemic rapidly evolves and the scientific community’s understanding of the novel coronavirus develops, some of the information may have changed since it was last updated. While we aim to keep all of our stories up to date, please visit online resources provided by the CDC, WHO, and your local public health department to stay informed on the latest news. Always talk to your doctor for professional medical advice.
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