In many cases, you can treat your headaches:
- at home with over-the-counter painkillers (ask your pharmacist if you need advice)
- with lifestyle changes, such as getting more rest and drinking enough fluids
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 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:
- poor posture
- skipping meals
Lifestyle changes, such as getting regular sleep, exercise, avoiding caffeine, reducing stress and staying well hydrated, may also help.
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:
- 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 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.
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:
- drinking too much alcohol
- a head injury or concussion
- a cold or flu
- temporomandibular disorders – problems affecting the "chewing" muscles and the joints between the lower jaw and the base of the skull
- carbon monoxide poisoning
- sleep apnoea – a condition where the walls of the throat relax and narrow during sleep, interrupting normal breathing
- high blood pressure
- infection - for example sinus infection or meningitis
- temporal arteritis - an inflammation of the temporal artery
- glaucoma - an eye condition where the optic nerve, which connects your eye to your brain, becomes damaged - it usually occurs when the fluid in the eye cannot drain properly, which increases the pressure inside the eye and puts pressure on the optic nerve
- increased pressure in your head
When a headache might be something serious
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.