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When should you worry about a headache?

Tuesday 12 September 2017

A man stands next to a concrete wall, holding his head and grimacing in pain.>
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Most headaches don't point to any underlying illness or injury and can be treated at home.

Headaches are really common. In fact, Headache Australia says they’re one of the most common symptoms experienced by humans, with more than 5 million Australians affected by headaches and migraines.

Even though it’s so common, if you’ve got a headache that’s sudden, severe or lasting, you might be worried that there’s a serious problem. So how do you know when a headache is something you can treat at home, or when you should see your doctor?

Let’s explore what a headache is, how you might treat it at home and when you should get medical advice.

What is a headache?

Technically, a headache can be any pain in the head, face or neck area. Headaches might be caused by muscle tension, nerve pain and dehydration, be a symptom of another illness, or be bought on by certain foods and drinks or medications.

There are two overarching types of headache: primary and secondary. Primary headaches are the most common, describing headaches that ‘just happen’ without an underlying illness or injury causing them. These include tension headaches, migraines and cluster headaches. Secondary headaches have a separate cause, like an existing illness, hormonal changes, sinus or tooth inflammation or a side effect of medication or drugs.  

Beyond these two broad classifications, Headache Australia lists 36 different types of headache. You can read more about different types of headaches, from hot-dog headaches to hangovers, on the Headache Australia website.

A woman holds a glass of water out in front of her.

How to treat a headache

Because there are so many different types of headache, there are lots of different ways they can be treated.

If your headaches are frequent, keeping a dairy that lists when you get headaches might help you figure out what triggers them. If there’s an obvious cause, like a tight neck, dehydration, or having too much caffeine, you might be able to avoid headaches by changing your behaviour or lifestyle.

When you have a headache, the below steps can help relieve the pain.

  • rest and relax in a quiet space with good ventilation
  • drink plenty of water
  • put a cool cloth or ice pack on your head
  • splash your face with cold water
  • if you have a tension headache, massage your neck, jaw, shoulders and head
  • talk to your pharmacist about what pain medication you can take – this might change depending your health, if you are taking any other medications and the type of headache you have.

Try these tips for preventing headaches:

  • eat regularly, fuelling your body with nutritious foods, as dropping blood glucose levels can trigger headaches
  • drink plenty of water, more if you’ve been exercising or it’s a hot day to avoid dehydration
  • make sure you aren’t in a room that is too hot or too cold, and has plenty of fresh air
  • exercise regularly
  • try not to sit or stand in the same position for too long, as this can cause muscle tension
  • avoid chocolate, caffeine, alcohol and tobacco, all of which can cause headaches
  • see your optometrist for an eye test
  • and avoid overusing headache medicines – too frequent use can cause ‘rebound’ headaches.

A woman holds her head as she suffers the pain of a headache.

When should you see a doctor about a headache?

Headaches not only cause you pain, but can result in loss of productivity and income. If you have ongoing headaches, it’s important to see your doctor to try and figure out the cause, rather than just put up with the pain. Keep in mind that most headaches do not point to a serious illness, extra worry about your headache might make it worse!

See your doctor if your headaches are frequent, you’ve had a headache for more than a few days, or your headaches are causing you stress or worry.

Rarely, a headache might be a sign of a serious medical condition. You should seek immediate medical attention if you:

  • have a sudden, very severe headache, and it’s the first time it’s happened
  • are experiencing any of the signs of stroke including a dropped face on one side; droopy mouth or eye; cannot lift one or both arms; or have slurred or garbled speech
  • have a headache accompanied by a stiff neck and fever
  • have signs of severe dehydration or heat stroke
  • may have been poisoned by ingesting, inhaling or touching a substance, or being bitten or stung by a poisonous animal or plant (call the Queensland Poisons Information Centre helpline on 13 11 26 for advice 24 hours, 7 days a week)
  • or have injured your head from a fall, blow or bump.
Last updated: 12 September 2017