Wondering why? Following are seven potential reasons you may have frequent headaches, along with some tips on how to cope with this annoying and painful symptom. While some of these reasons may sound scary, research shows the majority — 95 percent — of headaches experienced by people with HIV are not dangerous or life-threatening.
If your headache feels like a dull, aching pain; a buildup of pressure in your head; or tenderness in your head, neck, or shoulders, you may have a tension headache. About 40 percent of people worldwide experience tension headaches.
If you experience frequent tension headaches, your doctor may diagnose you with either episodic or chronic tension headaches. Tension headaches are considered episodic if you experience them less than 15 days out of the month. If you have a headache more often than that, you may have chronic tension headaches.
While there aren’t many large studies investigating tension headaches in people with HIV, a small study found that about 14 percent of people with HIV have experienced episodic or chronic tension headaches.
Migraine attacks are extremely painful headaches that cause pulsing or throbbing pain, often only on one side of your head. The pain may make you more sensitive to bright light and loud sounds, and it might be bad enough to make you feel nauseous. If your head hurts so badly that it interferes with your ability to function, you may be experiencing a migraine. Researchers are still working to understand the exact causes of migraine headaches, and it’s believed that inflammation in your brain’s blood vessels may play a role.
Migraine headaches are less common in the general population than tension headaches, with only about 10 percent of people worldwide reporting experiencing migraines. However, one small study found that 45 percent of participants with HIV reported migraine headaches. The inflammation caused by HIV may be similar to that caused by migraine, so these types of headaches may be more common in people with HIV.
“Woke up today with a bad migraine,” one myHIVteam member wrote. Another said, “Got a migraine and went for a checkup. Now I’m relaxing while I wait for my head to cool down.”
The congestion in your head caused by an upper respiratory infection like sinusitis (an infection in your sinuses) can cause headaches, along with fever, sore throat, runny nose, or a cough. HIV may weaken your immune system, making you more likely to catch one of these infections, so be sure to talk to your doctor if your headache comes with other symptoms.
“I have bronchitis and sinusitis today,” one myHIVteam member wrote. Another said, “My doctor gave me some antibiotics for sinusitis.” Headaches caused by upper respiratory infections will go away when your body gets over the infection.
Some HIV medications used in antiretroviral therapy — such as tenofovir, zidovudine (as found in Combivir), and efavirenz (as found in Atripla) — can cause headaches as a side effect. If you start taking a new HIV medicine and notice that you've started getting headaches, talk to your health care provider.
They can figure out if the medication is causing the problem. You may need to make changes to your treatment plan to avoid headaches. Do not stop taking a medication unless your doctor tells you to. Even with side effects, the medication is helping treat HIV.
Dehydration, or not having enough water in your body, can be a sneaky cause of headaches. To avoid dehydration headaches, focus on staying hydrated throughout the day. Carry a water bottle with you. Watch out for signs of dehydration, such as dark-colored urine, dizziness, or dry mouth.
Diarrhea is one of the common symptoms of HIV, and people with chronic diarrhea may be more susceptible to dehydration. Remember to continue sipping water under your doctor’s care, even if you are experiencing nausea or diarrhea, to prevent dehydration.
Advanced HIV, especially if HIV has progressed to AIDS, can make you more vulnerable to certain infections. Called opportunistic infections, they usually wouldn't cause problems for people with healthy immune systems. If these infections get into your nervous system, they can cause headaches.
Some of the potential opportunistic infections include cryptococcal meningitis caused by a fungus, cerebral toxoplasmosis caused by a parasite, tuberculosis meningitis caused by a bacteria, or progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy caused by a virus.
You can avoid opportunistic infections by staying on top of your HIV treatment because most opportunistic infections occur when HIV is not well controlled. Treatment helps keep your immune system strong so it can fight off potential infections. Additionally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends people with HIV avoid eating raw, undercooked, or unpasteurized foods or drinking untreated water.
Opportunistic infections are less common now that effective HIV treatments are available, but they can be serious and require immediate medical attention. Talk with your doctor right away if your headaches are severe or come with other symptoms like confusion, seizures, or a fever.
People with uncontrolled HIV have a higher risk of stroke, or an interruption in the blood flow to the brain that causes brain cells to die. Even when HIV is well treated, people with HIV who are aging have the same stroke risk that all older people do.
A very bad headache can be a sign of a stroke. Other signs include drooping on one side of the face, slurred speech, and an inability to lift both arms. If you have these signs, seek emergency medical attention immediately. The sooner you get care, the better your chance of recovery.
Most headaches are not dangerous. There are things you can do at home to help ease the pain:
Most headaches can be managed with simple remedies, but there are a few signs that it’s time to seek medical attention:
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