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Headaches

Headaches are one of the most common reasons for visiting a GP. They can either be primary, where the headache is the condition itself, or secondary, where the headache is the symptom of another condition.

  • Commonly caused by an overactivity of muscles and nerves in the head
  • There are many different types of headaches which vary in severity 
  • Can often be treated with over-the-counter medicines or home remedies

Our UK doctors are available to consult about headaches via our online video consultation service. You can book an appointment to speak to one of our clinicians between 9am and 5pm, Monday to Friday.

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Possible causes

Everyone gets headaches from time to time. They are not usually associated with a serious condition, but sometimes they can be an indication of an underlying problem. This is more likely to be the case if headaches are severe, or persistent.

Primary headaches

Primary headaches are not symptoms of an underlying condition, but simply a problem with the areas of the head which are pain-sensitive, including the muscles surrounding the head, and the blood vessels and nerves. Altered chemical activity can also have an effect on these areas and cause headaches.

The most common type of headache is a tension headache, and refers to the feeling of a tight band across the forehead or around the head. They usually do not last for more than a few days, but can be very uncomfortable and may be exacerbated by caffeine, physical activity, bright light or loud noises.

Migraines cause a type of headache that can be characterised by a throbbing sensation on one side of the head. They can also cause a sensation called aura, which may result in sight problems, feeling sick and discomfort.

Less common primary headaches include cluster headaches, which are very severe and will often occur for a number of days or weeks before disappearing for several months. They are extremely painful and are also only felt on one side of the head. 

Another type of primary headache is a stabbing headache (also known as an ice pick headache) which causes a stabbing sensation in the face. Stabbing headaches can sometimes be symptomatic of something more serious, so it’s important to seek advice from your doctor if you’re experiencing them.

Secondary headaches

Secondary headaches occur due to an underlying cause, such as a cold or flu virus. It’s very rare that a headache will be an indication of a serious condition, but it is possible.

Common causes of secondary headaches include inhalation of carbon monoxide (which can be produced by insufficiently ventilated heaters or leaking boilers), drinking too much alcohol and dehydration. Eating too much sugar can also cause headaches, by increasing levels of stress hormones in the body.

Secondary headaches may also be triggered by other pain-related issues in the head. For example, sinusitis can cause a headache when the sinuses become inflamed from the blockage of mucus.

Although rare, some headaches can be an indication of a serious condition. This is particularly likely if a headache occurs suddenly and gets progressively worse. Meningitis can lead to a headache as the tissue surrounding the brain becomes infected by either bacteria, viruses or fungi. Very rarely, brain tumours can be the cause of a headache. This type of headache will be persistent and constant, and often worse in the morning. 

Headaches may also stem from a lack of sleep, psychological stress and anxiety. The use of some types of medicine can also make someone more susceptible to headaches.

Diagnosing the cause of the headache

Most headaches will go away on their own, but you should seek medical help if they persist or become worse, or if you also experience visual disturbance. A doctor will look to establish what your medical history is in terms of headaches before making a diagnosis. 

It’s likely that a doctor will ask questions about the frequency and duration of the headaches, and how severe they are. It can be useful to keep a record of what the symptoms of your headaches are (for example, if they have been persistent or recurrent) which you can share with your doctor at your appointment. A doctor will also ask you about any medication that you have been taking.

During your consultation, a doctor may also choose to conduct a physical examination. They will check for palpitations (signs of throbbing or a strong pulse) around the temporal artery (the temples), and assess your blood pressure. Furthermore, a doctor may also examine you for signs of other conditions (for example, a stiff neck and fever, which can indicate meningitis).

Page last reviewed:  11/06/2020
Types of Treatment

Headaches don’t always require specific treatment. In many cases, they’ll pass on their own. Depending on what type of headache you have been diagnosed with, there are a variety of treatments. There are also certain self-help measures you can take to alleviate its effects.

What you can do to help a headache

For a primary headache, it’s vital to drink lots of water to ensure that the body is properly hydrated. You may benefit from relaxing if the headache is stress-induced. This can involve deep breathing and closing your eyes. 

You may also find taking paracetamol or ibuprofen to relieve the pain helpful. Whilst the headache is active, try not to drink alcohol as this can exacerbate symptoms.

Although it may seem tempting to try and sleep off a headache, sleeping more than your normal amount can sometimes have a negative effect (as it can make you more dehydrated).

How is a headache treated?

It depends on the headache.

It’s likely that your doctor will recommend lifestyle changes upon diagnosis of a primary headache, including not smoking or consuming alcohol. Your clinician will also recommend being mindful of other potentially exacerbating factors, such as caffeine.

Other non-pharmacological treatments include regular exercise, particularly for tension headaches, as there is evidence to suggest a link between a sedentary lifestyle and this type of headache.

For occasional headaches, in most cases over-the-counter options such as paracetamol can help to alleviate pain. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen may also sometimes be offered. 

If your doctor suspects that your headaches are occurring due to an underlying medical condition, they’ll offer advice and treatment to help manage this. For example, if your headaches are caused by stress, talking to your clinician may help to address this. If you experience a headache triggered by an illness such as flu, a doctor will suggest getting plenty of rest and staying hydrated.

If you are experiencing a headache and are concerned, it might be helpful to speak to a doctor. Our online video consultation service enables you to consult with one of our GMC-registered clinicians for advice, prescriptions, where suitable, and referral to specialists for treatment where required. 

Page last reviewed:  11/06/2020
Questions and Answers

How long is it normal to have a headache for?

Headaches can last anywhere between a few minutes and several days, or even weeks in some cases. 

If you develop a headache from eye strain because you’ve been staring at a screen for too long, your headache will likely go away once your eyes have had time to rest. If you’re dehydrated, symptoms will ease off after a couple of hours provided you drink plenty of fluids. 

Headaches caused by underlying conditions may last for much longer. 

Is a headache serious?

In the majority of cases, a headache is a common occurrence that is not indicative of another condition and will pass quickly. However, it is possible that some types of headache can be a sign of an underlying illness that requires treatment. 

This may be the case if you develop headaches repeatedly, have very severe headaches, or experience a constant headache that persists.

Can I get treatment for headaches?

A doctor will normally recommend some simple measures you can take to alleviate a headache, but if they fail to make a difference then there are medications which can help. Pain caused by mild headaches can usually be managed with ibuprofen or paracetamol. 

If you experience a headache caused by something else, such as repetitive eye strain or flu, your doctor can offer you advice on addressing it. 

Severe or constant headaches may need further investigation, and various treatment, depending on the findings.

How can I prevent a headache?

It isn’t possible to eliminate the risk of getting a headache, but there are a few measures you can take to avoid potential triggers. 

Try to limit your alcohol and caffeine intake, and drink plenty of water to stay hydrated. Staring at a screen for too long can strain the eyes which may lead to a headache; it may help to avoid prolonged sensory overload, which also applies to bright lights and noise, as it can often trigger headaches. 

It may also be sensible to visit your local optician for an eye test if you haven’t had one for a while. 

Sometimes sugar spikes and irregular eating habits can cause headaches, so eating well and at regular times can help to reduce the likelihood of getting one.

Can I speak to a doctor about headaches online?

Yes. If you would like to talk to a doctor online about headaches, you can do so using our online video consultation service. Once you have booked an appointment, our clinicians will be able to discuss your symptoms, issue prescriptions where suitable and recommend specialist treatment if necessary. 

Page last reviewed:  11/06/2020

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