Neck pain, or a sore neck, can be a regular symptom of the common cold, a flu virus, or another illness—including meningitis, in which case this symptom can indicate a dangerous condition that needs immediate medical treatment.
What Causes Neck Pain?
There are numerous causes of neck pain; when associated with a cold or similar illness, a handful of factors is usually to blame. In general, cold and flu viruses tend to make your muscles achy and sore. There are also several lymph nodes in the neck that can become swollen and tender with illness, and these swollen lymph nodes can make your neck feel stiff. In addition, when you're lying in bed all day, it's easy for your neck to become tired from certain positions—and to even become kinked while you're getting the extra sleep you need in order to recover. It's also possible that the pain you feel from a sore throat can radiate to the neck.
Neck stiffness is also considered a tale-tale sign of meningitis, although stiffness associated with meningitis is different from a typical sore neck: it can affect your ability to move the neck muscles. You may, for example, have difficulty turning your head from side to side. Meningitis is an infection which occurs in the fluid or membranes of the brain (the meninges) that can be very serious, and even deadly. Meningitis can be caused by a virus or bacteria, and in rarer instances, even by a parasite or fungus. Some types of meningitis can be extremely contagious; for this reason, it's important to rule out meningitis if you have neck pain. The symptoms of meningitis often come on quite suddenly, and can include:
- nausea and vomiting
- sensitivity to light
- difficulty waking up
If you have symptoms of meningitis, you should see your doctor right away.
Swollen lymph nodes (also called glands) can cause neck soreness when you have a cold- or flu-like illness. These nodes—located on both the front and back of your neck—may even become so swollen that they feel like lumps in your neck. For more information, read: Is it a Lump or a Lymph Node?
Treating Neck Pain Associated With a Cold or Flu Virus
There are several things you can do to ease neck pain associated with a cold or flu-like illness at home.
Over-the Counter Pain Relievers
Over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers, such as acetaminophen and ibuprofen, can help relieve neck pain—but be sure to consult with your doctor or pharmacist if you're taking other medications, as they could react badly with OTC pain relievers. You should also keep in mind that many cold and cough preparations already contain these medications, so doubling up could result in an overdose. Always be sure to read the ingredients in any cold medications you're taking before adding a pain reliever to the regimen. Adults may find some relief from aspirin, but because children risk developing a rare condition called Reye Syndrome by taking aspirin, it should not be given to them. Naproxen sodium (brand name Aleve) can be used in some people, but it's very similar to ibuprofen. Unless instructed to do so by your doctor, you shouldn't combine ibuprofen and naproxen sodium. If you have questions about over-the-counter pain relievers, consult your doctor or pharmacist.
Some people may find relief from over-the-counter topical ointments intended to relieve muscle aches. Most of these ointments use menthol as their main ingredient (e.g., Icy Hot), but others may contain salicylates (aspirin-like substances). Capsaicin, an ingredient found in hot peppers, is also used in some creams and ointments that are typically intended for arthritis pain; these may not be the best choice for neck pain, however—especially if you've never tried one before (they're hot!). There have been some reports of chemical burns upon use of these ointments, so it's important to use them as directed. If you experience redness, itching, intense burning or discomfort, wash the cream or ointment off immediately. Do not use these ointments along with ice or heat packs.
Ice and Heating Packs
A simple and effective way to ease neck pain from a cold or flu virus is to use an ice pack or heating pad. Heat can relax tense muscles in the neck, while ice can reduce inflammation. There are no clear-cut guidelines on which (hot or cold) is most effective, so you may need to experiment. When using ice packs or heating pads, make sure you follow general safety guidelines:
- Never put either directly on your skin—there should be some kind of linen barrier in between.
- Ice packs should generally not be left on for longer than about twenty minutes before taking a break.
- Don't fall asleep with hot or cold packs, or heating pads, in place.
- Remove heat or ice immediately if you notice changes in skin coloration, or if they become uncomfortable.
- Be especially cautious when heating warm packs in the microwave, as they often heat unevenly or can become excessively hot.
When to See a Doctor
A typical cold or flu virus can last about three weeks. If neck pain persists for longer than three weeks, or if you have lumps in your neck that don't go away in this amount of time, you should see a doctor. And if you suspect meningitis, you should see a medical professional immediately—especially if you experience a sudden onset of fever and a stiff neck. If you become unsure or uneasy about your condition at any time, or if you suspect an illness like strep throat that needs to be treated with antibiotics, you should also see physician.
CDC. Meningitis. Accessed: September 30, 2012 from http://www.cdc.gov/meningitis/index.html
FDA. Topical Pain Relievers May Cause Burns. Accessed: September 30, 2012 from http://www.fda.gov/ForConsumers/ConsumerUpdates/ucm318674.htm
Medline Plus. Neck Pain. Accessed: September 30, 2012 from http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/003025.htm