Headaches

A headache is one of the most common health complaints. Most headaches aren't serious and are easily treated. It’s a good idea to see your GP if they're so painful or frequent they affect your daily activities. Headaches can be a problem on their own, or a symptom of other illness.

Treating headaches

In many cases, you can treat your headaches:

It's a good idea to see your GP if:

  • your headaches aren't relieved by over-the-counter treatments taken at recommended dose (you should always read the patient information leaflet)
  • they're so painful or frequent that they affect your daily activities or are causing you to miss work
  • there are symptoms of something that may be more serious (see ‘Could it be something more serious’ section below)

Tension headaches 

Tension headaches are the most common type of headache. They are what many of us think of as normal, ’everyday’ headaches. They feel like a constant ache that affects both sides of the head, as though a tight band is stretched around it.

A tension headache normally won't be severe enough to prevent you doing everyday activities. They usually last for 30 minutes to several hours, but can last for several days.

The exact cause is unclear. Tension headaches have been linked to things such as:

Tension headaches can usually be treated with ordinary painkillers such as paracetamol  and ibuprofen.

Lifestyle changes, such as getting regular sleep, exercise, avoiding caffeine, reducing stress and staying well hydrated, may also help.

Migraines 

Migraines are less common than tension headaches. They're usually felt as a severe, throbbing pain at the front or side of the head.

Some people also have other symptoms, such as:

  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • increased sensitivity to light or sound

Migraines tend to be more severe than tension headaches. They can stop you carrying out your normal daily activities. They usually last at least a couple of hours. Some people, with the most severe migraines, find they need to stay in bed for days at a time.

Most people can treat their migraines successfully with over-the-counter medication. But if they're severe, you may need stronger medication that's only available on prescription. This may be able to relieve and prevent your migraines.

Cluster headaches 

Cluster headaches are a rare type of headache.

They tend to occur:

  • at the same time each day
  • in clusters of several episodes of headache, occurring on several days, for a period of anywhere between one week and one year

Cluster episodes are usually separated by periods of at least a month, when no headaches occur. They may recur predictably at certain times of the year.

They're excruciatingly painful. They cause intense pain around one eye, or the temporal area (at the side of your head).

They often occur with other symptoms, such as:

  • a watering or red eye
  • a blocked or runny nose

Pharmacy medications don't ease the symptoms of a cluster headache. A doctor can prescribe specific treatments, if appropriate, to ease the pain and help prevent further attacks.

Medication and painkiller headaches 

Some headaches are a side effect of taking a particular medication. Frequent headaches can also be caused by taking too many painkillers. This is known as a painkiller or medication-overuse headache.

A medication-overuse headache will usually get better within a few weeks once you stop taking the painkillers that are causing it. Although your pain may get worse for a few days before it starts to improve.

Hormone headaches 

Headaches in women are often caused by hormones. Many women notice a link with their periods. The combined contraceptive pill, the menopause and pregnancy are also potential triggers.

Reducing your stress levels, having a regular sleeping pattern, and ensuring you don't miss meals may help reduce headaches associated with your menstrual cycle.

Other causes of headaches 

Headaches can also have a number of other causes, including:

Could it be something serious? 

In the vast majority of cases, a headache isn't a sign of a serious problem. But, rarely, it can be a symptom of a condition such as a strokemeningitis, or a brain tumour.

A headache is more likely to be serious if:

  • it occurs suddenly and is very severe – often described as a blinding pain unlike anything experienced before
  • it doesn't go away and gets worse over time
  • it occurs after a severe head injury
  • it's triggered suddenly by coughing, laughing, sneezing, changes in posture, or physical exertion
  • the headache is consistently worse in the morning, or present when you wake up
  • you have symptoms suggesting a problem with your brain or nervous system, including weakness, slurred speech, confusion, memory loss, and drowsiness
  • you have additional symptoms, such as a high temperature (fever), a stiff neck, a rash, jaw pain while chewing, vision problems, a sore scalp, or severe pain and redness in one of your eyes

If you're concerned that your headache might be serious, you should seek immediate medical advice. Contact your GP or GP out of hours service as soon as possible, or go to your nearest emergency department.

The information on this page has been adapted from original content from the NHS website.

For further information, read terms and conditions.

This page was reviewed February 2018

This page is due for review April 2021

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