Cough, exertional, and other miscellaneous headaches

Med Clin North Am. 1991 May;75(3):733-47. doi: 10.1016/s0025-7125(16)30446-1.


We have discussed several miscellaneous headache disorders not associated with structural brain disease. The first group included those headaches provoked by "exertional" triggers in various forms. These include benign cough headache, BEH, and headache associated with sexual activity. The IHS diagnostic criteria were discussed. Benign exertional headache and cough headache were discussed together because of their substantial similarities. In general, BEH is characterized by severe, short-lived pain after coughing, sneezing, lifting a burden, sexual activity, or other similar brief effort. Structural disease of the brain or skull was the most important differential diagnosis for these disorders, with posterior fossa mass lesions being identified as the most common organic etiology. Magnetic resonance imaging with special attention to the posterior fossa and foramen magnum is the preferred method for evaluating these patients. Indomethacin is the treatment of choice. The headache associated with sexual activity is dull in the early phases of sexual excitement and becomes intense at orgasm. This headache is unpredictable in occurrence. Like BEH, the headache associated with sexual activity can be a manifestation of structural disease. Subarachnoid hemorrhage must be excluded, by CT scanning and CSF examination, in patients with the sexual headache. Benign headache associated with sexual activity has been successfully treated with indomethacin and beta-blockers. The second miscellaneous group of headache disorders includes those provoked by eating something cold or food additives, and by environmental stimuli. Idiopathic stabbing headache does not have a known trigger and appears frequently in migraineurs. Its occurrence may also herald the termination of an attack of cluster headache. Indomethacin treatment provides significant relief. Three headaches triggered by substances that are eaten were reviewed: ingestion of a cold stimulus, nitrate/nitrite-induced headache, and MSG-induced headache. For the most part, avoidance of these stimuli can prevent the associated headache. Lastly, we reviewed headache provoked by high altitude and hypoxia. The headache is part of the syndrome of AMS during its early or benign stage and the later malignant stage of HACE. The pain can be exacerbated by exercise. The best treatment is prevention via slow ascent and avoidance of respiratory depressants. Acetazolamide and dexamethasone have proved useful in preventing this syndrome.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Altitude
  • Coitus
  • Cold Temperature / adverse effects
  • Cough / complications
  • Exercise
  • Headache / diagnosis
  • Headache / etiology*
  • Headache / physiopathology
  • Headache / therapy
  • Humans
  • Sodium Glutamate / adverse effects
  • Sodium Nitrite / adverse effects


  • Sodium Nitrite
  • Sodium Glutamate