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What are the Most Common Causes of Headache and Chills?

By Deborah Walker
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Headache and chills are symptoms of dozens of illnesses, most of which are caused by viruses. Among the most common diseases that cause these symptoms are colds and flu. Meningitis, strep throat, and food poisoning may also include headaches and chills in their constellations of symptoms.

More than 200 different cold viruses infect billions of people around the world each year. The exact cold symptoms depend upon which virus is contracted, but in all cases, the primary symptoms are runny nose, nasal congestion, and sneezing. Some people may experience headache, muscle aches, chills, a cough, or a sore throat. Young children may have a fever between 100° and 102° Fahrenheit (37.7° to 38.8° Celsius). The common cold usually lasts about seven days and, often, only the symptoms are treated.

The onset of the flu begins with a sudden fever of 102° to 106° Fahrenheit (38.8° to 41.1° Celsius), which lasts one to five days. At the same time or following the fever, those with the flu may experience body aches, headaches, chills, dizziness, and tiredness. Some people develop a dry, hacking cough, sore throat, runny nose, sneezing, congestion, loss of appetite, nausea and/or vomiting. With the exception of the cough and tiredness, which may last for weeks, flu symptoms usually last four to seven days. Most of the time, care focuses on relieving the patient's symptoms, unless they are severe and require hospitalization.

Viral meningitis occurs mostly in children under five years old, and the virus does not often infect people over 30. It may be caused by the herpes virus, West Nile virus, or enteroviruses. People may have a severe headache, chills, fever, photophobia, nausea, vomiting, fever, and/or a stiff neck. The patient's mental status often changes, and agitation or irritability are also quite common. There is no specific treatment for viral meningitis, and it generally resolves on its own in about two weeks.

Bacterial meningitis is much more serious than viral meningitis. It requires immediate treatment with antibiotics and sometimes hospitalization. The symptoms may include high fever, headache and chills, a stiff neck and nausea, photophobia, and seizures. Infants with bacterial meningitis may appear listless, vomit, and refuse to eat. Brain damage, deafness, blindness, or death may result if this disease is not treated quickly.

Strep throat is a bacterial infection caused by group A streptococcus. Anyone may contract strep throat, but it is most often seen in children between 5 and 15 years old. The onset of this illness is abrupt; typical symptoms may be fever, sore throat, headache, chills, nausea, swollen lymph nodes, nasal congestion, and/or joint stiffness. If left untreated, patients may develop scarlet fever, rheumatic fever, or, more rarely, kidney disease. Antibiotics are usually prescribed and symptoms should disappear within a week.

Food poisoning is caused by ingesting bacteria or toxins in contaminated food, and Staphylococcus and E. coli are common culprits. Symptoms may appear 30 minutes or more after eating the contaminated food, and commonly include stomach cramps and diarrhea, weakness, a fever, headache and chills, and nausea and vomiting. The medical professional may recommend over-the-counter medication to settle the stomach or relieve diarrhea, but the symptoms usually go away within 12 to 48 hours.

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Discussion Comments
By anon996587 — On Sep 15, 2016

I got so cold last night i turned off the a/c and got the heaviest blanket I had. Had a slight headache. Took ibuprofen. Went to sleep. Today I woke up with no chills but a stronger headache.

No sore throat, no sinus or nasal anything, no stomach or digestive area problems. But that was the coldest I have ever been and for so long. The thermostat was the same temp it always is set at. Not on any meds for anything. Just really really cold and for at least an hour. Couldn't get warm enough. Teeth chattered. The headache isn't pleasant either. At least I am not cold today. No fever along with it. Never had this before.

By irontoenail — On Dec 21, 2012

@indigomoth - Well, that's actually very common that people start getting sick less and less as they get older, at least in regards to common flus and colds.

The reason is that there are actually only so many cold viruses in the world and you can only get each of them once. When it's gone through your system, you develop immunity for it and can't catch it again. That's why people catch bugs more often if they are exposed to folk who've come from overseas, or if they go overseas themselves.

Of course, cold and flu viruses change over the years as well. And they think that it's possible that mothers pass down some of that immunity to their kids. So it's just an ongoing process over the generations as people get immunity and the viruses change.

By indigomoth — On Dec 20, 2012

I don't really get severe headaches, more often when I get sick I just get really unfocused and dizzy with a slight headache. It's not very pleasant, because I simply cannot concentrate on anything, but pain medication doesn't do very much to help.

Luckily as I've got older I seem to get sick less and less, maybe because I'm eating healthier or something like that.

By clintflint — On Dec 19, 2012

@sunshined - Just remember to make sure your kids take the whole course of medication when they are given antibiotics. Even when the symptoms stop, there might still be bacteria left in the body and they will eventually become immune to the medication if you aren't careful.

This is what often leads to worse complications like scarlet fever and so forth. People think they are cured of the strep throat, but really all they've done is put away the obvious symptoms.

By sunshined — On Nov 13, 2012

At least with strep throat you can take an antibiotic which helps with the throat soreness. Even then, people have different symptoms with a strep throat. My daughter usually has headaches and dizziness that go along with this. This seems strange that strep throat would cause these symptoms, but we have discovered this is common for her.

When my son gets strep throat he just has a bad sore throat and it doesn't seem to affect him as much. I am glad that antibiotics help pretty quickly as it is hard to see my kids feeling so miserable.

By honeybees — On Nov 13, 2012

Many times when it comes to a virus the doctor can't give you an antibiotic and you just have to let it run its course. It still amazes me with all the advances in modern medicine they still haven't come up with a cure for the common cold.

I always dread cold and flu season because I seem to get at least one bad cold and one round of the flu every winter. For me it starts with a headache that won't go away no matter what I take. If I start running a fever I know I am going to come down with the flu.

If I just have a runny nose and scratchy throat I have a bad cold. What is really miserable is if I get both of these at the same time. All I can do is take over-the-counter medication, drink a lot of water and rest.

By julies — On Nov 12, 2012

I had mono when I was in my early 20's and this really wiped me out. Not only was it the worst sore throat I have ever had, but I had severe headaches and a high fever. Once my fever broke, then I had the chills. The fever went away but I still had the sore throat, headaches and fatigue for several days. It took me months before I had my energy level back.

By Mykol — On Nov 12, 2012

@giddion -- Yes, food poisoning is awful. Having a cold or the flu is never fun but when I had food poisoning it was the worst I have ever felt in my life. When it first hit me I thought I had symptoms of the flu, but my husband started feeling the same way.

A few hours earlier we had eaten out at a restaurant and both ordered the same thing. The headache was the worst I ever had, and I kept going from feeling hot to having the chills. This has made me more cautious about what I eat and hope I never get something like this again.

By giddion — On Oct 28, 2012

Food poisoning is the worst! My bout with it started with a headache and vomiting came soon afterward.

I vomited for hours. I also had what felt like a migraine. I haven't had another headache like this since.

By feasting — On Oct 27, 2012

The flu gave me a bad headache, chills, and nausea. The chills alternated with hot sweats, so I would be freezing one minute and burning up the next.

I was out of my head for awhile. I hallucinated a little because of the fever.

I think the fever probably caused the headache, and the chills just went along with the fever. Either way, taking acetaminophen helped a little.

By Oceana — On Oct 27, 2012

@lighth0se33 – Antibiotics do take awhile to do their thing. This is why most doctors will give you steroids along with the antibiotics. The steroids provide immediate relief.

I got a steroid shot and a dose pack of pills to take for five days when I had strep throat. Because of this, my sore throat got better in just one day!

I still had the headaches for a couple of days, but the chills and fever left when the sore throat departed. Steroids gave my body the boost it needed to recover, and the antibiotics got rid of the bacteria.

By lighth0se33 — On Oct 26, 2012

I have a headache, fever, and chills from strep throat. I also have the worst sore throat I've ever had, and I can't bear to live with that for a week! Is it true that the antibiotics won't get rid of it right away?

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