Headache includes many types of head and facial pain. It is the most common form of pain and a major reason people miss work or school. Most headaches are not a cause for concern; however, if they keep occurring, see your doctor to help find ways to reduce the impact on your life.

When to seek urgent medical care

Sometimes a headache is a sign of a more serious problem. You should get a headache checked right away if you have any of the following symptoms:

  • a really severe headache that comes on suddenly ‘out of the blue’
  • nausea, a stiff neck, rash, fever, shakes or are sensitive to light (warning signs of meningococcal disease or meningitis)
  • your headache follows a head injury.

Call Healthline 0800 611 116 if you are unsure what you should do.

Types of headaches

undefinedThere are many types of headaches. These vary in how severe they are, how long they last, how they feel, their causes, and how they respond to different treatments.

The most common types include:

Tension headaches – the most common type of headache. A dull pain that feels like someone is tightening a band around your head or blowing a balloon up inside your head.
Migraine – may be like tension headache but it is usually one-sided, pulsating, more severe and debilitating.
Cluster headaches – are repeated, sudden, short-lived, usually one-sided and severe, frontal headaches (often ‘behind the eye’).
Chronic daily headache – may be any form of headache that recurs on a daily, or near daily, basis.

What causes headaches?

There are many different causes of headaches including:

  • muscle tension
  • an infection elsewhere in your body
  • inflamed arteries (which cause migraine or cluster headaches)
  • the toxic effects of alcohol or other substances.

Headaches can be triggered by stress, tiredness, hunger, certain foods, eyestrain, noise or bright light.

When to see your doctor about headache

Usually, headaches go away given time, rest and/or treatment with a pain relief medication. You should see your doctor if:

  • headaches remain frequent, persistent or worsen
  • you get no relief from simple pain relievers
  • you take simple pain relievers more than twice a week
  • you were headache-free but now get them
  • your headache is triggered by standing up, coughing, straining, physical exertion or sexual intercourse
  • you are over 50 and start to get regular headaches or there is face or jaw pain.

If a friend or family member has any of the urgent symptoms listed in the box at the top of this page, seek immediate medical help.

Call Healthline 0800 611 116 if you are unsure what you should do.

How to describe your headaches

  • Where is the pain? ie, on one side or both, behind the eye(s), forehead
  • How severe are they? ie, on a scale of 1 to 10
  • What do they feel like? ie, vice-like, stabbing, throbbing, splitting
  • How long do they last? ie, minutes, hours or days
  • How often do they occur? ie, daily, monthly, only on weekends or weekdays
  • When do they occur? ie, on waking, in the afternoon
  • When did they begin? ie, childhood, middle age
  • What triggers them? ie, some foods, alcohol, caffeine, exertion, noise, bright light, hunger, stress, tiredness, weather
  • What else do you feel? ie, neck or shoulder tension, sinus pain, tender scalp
  • Is your vision affected? ie, blind spots, strange lights or patterns
  • What treatment did you take
  • How effective is the treatment (or isn’t).

Self care for headache

What can I do if I have a headache?

  • drink a large glass of water
  • take pain relief medication
  • rest in a dark, quiet room
  • have someone give you a head, neck and shoulder massage
  • relax in a warm bath.
  • If headaches or migraines are recurring, track with a headache diary, to help look for triggers or patterns. This can also be useful to show your doctor.

If you get headaches three or more times a month, your doctor may recommend preventive treatment.

What can I do to prevent headaches?

Lifestyle changes can help prevent headaches. Getting more exercise, avoiding known stresses or triggers, improving your sleep and diet can all have considerable benefits.

  • Trigger avoidance
    • If you know what causes your headaches (eg, alcohol, chocolate, cheese) it’s best to avoid these things if you can.
  • Dietary changes
    • Keep your blood-sugar levels even by eating small amounts of a balanced diet regularly.
    • You may find keeping a headache diary useful for identifying if certain foods trigger your headaches and need to be avoided.
  • Stress reduction
    • Try to make time in your day to do something you find relaxing – have a bath, go for a walk, laugh with friends.
  • Regular exercise
    • Activities such as swimming or vigorous walking, can help reduce the frequency and severity of headaches.

Learn more

Headache Ministry of Health
Range of migraine and headache topics American Migraine Foundation

Credits: Health Navigator, June 2014. Latest update February 2017.