Can COPD Cause Severe Headaches? (Read Our Expert's Advice)
Headache is a common symptom among people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
Typically, we distinguish two types of headaches: primary and secondary, and while the latter is more common in the general population, it is a clinical sign of other health conditions (such as COPD), in contrast to primary headaches, when the headache itself is the main problem.
Although the headache can be quite severe in COPD patients, affecting daily activities and quality of life, several strategies can significantly relieve it or resolve it entirely.
Can COPD cause severe headaches?
Yes, it can. One of the characteristics of COPD is affecting the levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the blood. Proper levels of these are essential for the healthy performance of your body.
A severe headache in a COPD patient is a sign of a change in carbon dioxide and oxygen levels. If this symptom is present in a COPD patient, then there also are high chances of having:
- Sleep apnea
- Sleep disturbance
- Chronic hypoxemia - means that you have low oxygen levels in your blood.
How Can COPD Cause Headaches?
The main reason behind the headache in COPD patients is the reduced oxygen and excessive carbon dioxide levels in the blood. First, we need to understand why it occurs and how to prevent headaches.
COPD is a clinical condition that damages the respiratory system by airway inflammation, accompanied by excess mucus and swelling. Eventually, the airways get blocked (obstructed), causing the main symptoms of COPD (e.g., difficulty breathing).
However, the above mentioned changes also block oxygen from entering the lungs (and the bloodstream) during inhaling and remove carbon dioxide from leaving the lungs (and the bloodstream) during exhaling. The result is too little oxygen and too much carbon dioxide in the bloodstream.
When the brain gets this kind of blood, it tries to absorb as much oxygen as possible by widening the blood vessels, thus, causing a headache.
Symptoms Associated with COPD Headaches
As we have already agreed, oxygen is essential for our organ systems to perform. Our body demonstrates the lack of oxygen through different signs, depending on which organ systems do not get enough of it. The headache is one of those signs; however, it is hardly the only symptom of COPD in most cases.
COPD can also cause dizziness, especially in the morning, after getting up from bed. The dizziness happens due to a blood pressure drop after standing up quickly. For this reason, a COPD patient, along with headaches, can often experience dizziness or difficulty breathing.
Can Supplemental Oxygen Cause Headaches?
Yes, supplemental oxygen therapy may cause headaches. Nevertheless, the possibility of this side effect is higher among patients receiving pure oxygen for a long time at the hospital than those receiving oxygen therapy at home. If you experience headaches, we encourage you to talk to your doctor. This side effect is easy to treat by adjusting your oxygen dosage.
How to Treat COPD Headaches?
As we have explained above, the most common cause of headaches in COPD patients is a lack of oxygen in the bloodstream. Naturally, the most effective intervention for these headaches is increasing the oxygen blood levels.
As we discussed above, COPD headaches are secondary. Therefore, if you receive medications for COPD treatment, the headaches and other symptoms will resolve over time. The medicines are intended to dilate and relieve the swelling in the bronchi, as well as to prevent or treat infections. And again, these medications should be prescribed by a healthcare professional.
Among different ways to recover the oxygen levels in your body, supplemental oxygen therapy is one of them. Oxygen is commonly delivered via a face mask or a nasal tube during this therapy. However, it would help if you talked to your doctor about the details of this treatment method and were aware of other interventions.
In addition to COPD treatment, one can take over-the-counter medications to relieve headaches. However, receiving these medications over prolonged periods is not suggested.
5 Tips on How COPD Patients Can Prevent Headaches
A COPD-related headache may be one of the signs of a COPD flare-up. These episodes should be appropriately managed, aiming to decrease COPD activity, thus, partially relieving or resolving most COPD symptoms, including headaches. To achieve this, we suggest the following actions:
As obstruction in the lungs is a crucial element of COPD, relieving the obstruction as much as possible is one of the main strategies in COPD treatment. Inhaled bronchodilators are the first-line treatment for COPD.1
If symptoms persist while receiving bronchodilators, inhaled corticosteroids are added. There are medications consisting of inhaled bronchodilators/corticosteroids combinations as well.
However, it would help if you talked to your doctor before taking these medications.
Supplemental Oxygen Therapy
Studies have demonstrated the therapeutic effects of supplemental oxygen therapy in COPD patients.2
You can use various oxygen supplementation device such as oxygen tank and oxygen concentrators to get the oxygen you need.
Along with medications, this treatment method increases the effectiveness even more, as it directly increases blood oxygen levels.
What you eat – can significantly affect your breathing.
To reduce COPD symptoms, it is recommended to avoid:
- Simple carbohydrates (e.g., cake, candy, sugar, soft drinks)
- Trans and saturated fat (e.g., butter, skin of meat, fried food)
- Foods causing bloating or gasses
Instead, you should include in your diet:
- Fiber (e.g., nuts, fruits, vegetables)
- Protein (e.g., eggs, fish, meat)
- Unsaturated fats (e.g., corn oil, canola)
Nevertheless, you should contact your doctor before making changes to your diet.3
Staying physically active is crucially important. The recommended dose of physical activity in COPD patients is overall ≥150 min per week, which should be accumulated over five days.
Rest periods during exercise are also crucial for managing breathlessness.4
Cigarette smoke and other harmful effects worsen obstruction and inflammation in the lungs. Also, it significantly decreases the beneficial effects of COPD treatment interventions.
Therefore, avoiding inhaling cigarette smoke is essential.
FAQs About COPD-Related Headaches
Can COPD cause dizziness and headaches?
Yes, COPD can cause dizziness and headaches. Other clinical conditions may cause these two; COPD is among these conditions.
Can a lack of oxygen cause headaches?
Yes, a lack of oxygen can cause headaches. Low oxygen levels widen blood vessels in the brain, thus, causing a headache.
Is a headache a symptom of emphysema?
Headache can be a symptom of emphysema. Emphysema is one of the forms of COPD that directly damages the lungs, thus, worsening the condition and making the symptoms, including headaches, even worse.
COPD is a clinical condition damaging the respiratory system by airway inflammation, restricting oxygen entering the bloodstream. Low oxygen levels widen blood vessels in the brain, causing headaches (secondary headaches). Several strategies are recommended to resolve COPD headaches, including supplemental oxygen therapy.
- Irusen EM, Malange TD. Pharmacotherapy of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease: Therapeutic considerations focused on inhaled corticosteroids. South African Fam Pract. 2020;62(1):1-6. doi:10.4102/SAFP.V62I1.5198
- Stoller JK, Panos RJ, Krachman S, Doherty DE, Make B. Oxygen Therapy for Patients With COPD: Current Evidence and the Long-Term Oxygen Treatment Trial. Chest. 2010;138(1):179. doi:10.1378/CHEST.09-2555
- Scoditti E, Massaro M, Garbarino S, Toraldo DM. Role of Diet in Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease Prevention and Treatment. Nutrients. 2019;11(6). doi:10.3390/NU11061357
- Spruit MA, Singh SJ, Garvey C, et al. An official American thoracic society/European respiratory society statement: Key concepts and advances in pulmonary rehabilitation. Am J Respir Crit Care Med. 2013;188(8). doi:10.1164/RCCM.201309-1634ST/SUPPL_FILE/EXECUTIVE_SUMMARY.PDF
About the Author
After working as a paramedic and emergency physician, Arno has already shifted into healthcare research and medical writing for five years. While working as Healthcare Programs Coordinator, his research topics include community health and organizational healthcare. Simultaneously Arno is involved in academic writing and uses blog posts as a platform to transfer knowledge to the general audience.
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