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When to worry about a headache?

Headaches are never a pleasant experience. For most of us, they are often short-lived and can easily be treated with over-the-counter medication such as paracetamol. But how do you know when a headache is a sign of something more serious?

If you suffer from regular headaches, then it can pay to know the different types, and what symptoms are a "red flag" of something potentially more serious.

So, today we are going to be taking you through the typical symptoms of a headache, and what to look out for in a headache that may require more immediate attention.

Are there different types of headache?

Everyone will probably experience a headache at some point during their lifetime, but did you know that there are more than 300 types of headaches, with only around 10% of these having a known cause?

Despite there being many types of headache, the chances are you will only ever experience one or two of them.

The three most common types of headache are:

  • Tension headaches – these are the most common type of headache and effect around 3 out of 4 adults. They can usually be identified by a dull ache, and feelings of tightness around the sides of the head.
  • Cluster headaches – Cluster headaches aren't experienced by many people, but when they do hit, they are often quite severe. Cluster headaches can occur anywhere up to 8 times in a day and can sometimes last for multiple months.
  • Migraines – Many people suffer from migraine headaches, and they can range in severity - for many, this type of headache can be very debilitating.

While regular headaches can be treated easily with paracetamol and other painkillers, treating a migraine can be challenging and require special medication, such as Sumatriptan.

What are the signs that a headache could be something serious?

Because headaches are such a common part of everyday life, it means that we can easily recognise a headache that feels especially severe or unusual.

A headache that feels different can be a sign that there is an underlying health concern that requires more immediate attention – but what do you need to look out for?

  • A headache accompanied by a stiff neck, fever, nausea or weakness.
  • A headache as a result of a blow to the head.
  • A headache that causes pain in the temples upon contact.
  • A headache that is abrupt and wakes you up in the night.
  • A sudden onset headache that is very severe.
  • Headaches accompanied by red eyes.
  • Headaches that grow in severity.
  • Headache that increase in severity upon movement.

Concussions, which are often the result of a head trauma, may not cause a headache straight away. If you experience an injury to your head, it's best to get checked by your doctor to ensure you haven't got a concussion - even if you feel fine.

If you are experiencing symptoms like fatigue, weakness, dizziness or blurred vision along with your headache, you should seek immediate medical attention. Do not drive yourself to the hospital if you are experiencing such symptoms - arrange for someone else to take you.

Remember - you can always call NHS 111 for free. Their operators can provide information and advice on treating your headache. If you are unsure whether your headache is a medical emergency, you can call them and discuss your symptoms with them.

When to seek medical help?

If you find yourself experiencing any of the above symptoms or feel that your headache is more severe than usual, then it is always recommended that you seek medical help.

In some cases, a severe or unusual headache may be something more serious, such as:

  • Blood clot
  • Stroke
  • Tumour

If you feel concerned about your symptoms then you should make an appointment to see your GP, however if you are struggling and feel that your symptoms are severe, we advise you attend your local A&E to get more immediate assistance.


Authored & Reviewed By

Mohamed Imran Lakhi

MPharm - Lead Pharmacist
Imran Lakhi is the superintendent pharmacist and founder at Prescription Doctor. He has been at the core of our team.

Published on: 14/08/2019 Reviewed on: 27/10/2021
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