Badge Close Icon
Aliquetin phasellus feugiat lobortis tortor hendrerit ultricies mus aliquam malesuada
Badge Close Icon

Headaches: What to Know, When to Worry

March 11, 2023
Headaches: What to Know, When to Worry

Do headaches have you feeling down and out? Don't worry; you're not alone. Headaches can be a real pain - pun intended.

Understanding the different types of headaches and knowing when to seek medical help can put you back in control of your health. So what are you waiting for? Keep reading to learn more about headaches, symptoms, treatment, and prevention.

What is a Headache?

Headaches can be described as throbbing, continuous, severe, or dull pressure that varies widely in pain, intensity, location, and frequency.

If you've experienced this before - you're not alone! Headaches are a common occurrence, with most individuals encountering them several times during their lifetimes. They're the most prevalent pain and a leading cause of lost work, missed school days, or doctor's appointments.

What Forms of Headaches Exist?

First, we have tension headaches, the most common form of headache. These bad boys can cause a dull, crushing ache on both sides of the head like your head is trapped in a vice! 

You can often treat tension headaches with over-the-counter pain medicine like acetaminophen or NSAID drugs like naproxen, aspirin, or ibuprofen. 

These headaches often localized on one side of the head, starting around the eye and temple and moving to the rear of the head. Migraines can last anywhere from four to seventy-two hours! But how do you know if you're dealing with a migraine? Well, you can remember the acronym POUND:

  • P: pulsating pain 
  • O: duration of severe untreated episodes in one day 
  • U: a one-sided (unilateral) pain 
  • N: nausea and vomiting are not present 
  • D: inhibiting intensity

Migraines can be triggered by loud sounds, bright lights, or strong odors; some people even experience an aura before an attack. If you catch a migraine early, you can treat it with over-the-counter pain medicine. But if your migraines become more frequent or severe, it's time to see a doctor. They may prescribe you something stronger, like triptans such as rizatriptan, zolmitriptan, and sumatriptan, which can provide relief within just two hours!

Last but not least, we have cluster headaches, which are more common in men than women. These headaches get their name because they occur in clusters, typically one to eight headaches daily for one to three months, with recurrences every few years. The pain is intense, constantly occurring on one side of the head. During an attack, you might also experience a red and watery eye, a drooping eyelid, and a runny nose. And let's remember the restlessness, agitation, nausea, and sensitivity to light and sound!

Sadly, over-the-counter medicine usually won't cut it for cluster headaches. A high amount of oxygen can be beneficial if administered at the onset of pain. And drugs like sumatriptan or galcanezumab (Emgality), which is FDA-approved to minimize cluster headache episodes, can also provide relief.

Headaches can also be caused by other ailments and circumstances. Sinus infections can cause discomfort in the forehead, around the nose and eyes, the cheeks, and the upper teeth. Brain freezes can cause a severe, abrupt headache after consuming anything cold. And sometimes, intense physical activity can induce a headache, but you can prevent it by staying hydrated and taking over-the-counter anti-inflammatories before exercise.

When to be Alarmed by a Headache 

While most headaches can be relieved with self-care, painkillers, or medication prescribed by your doctor, some require immediate medical attention. If you experience an unusually severe headache that keeps getting worse, accompanied by a stiff neck, fever, confusion, or neurological symptoms such as visual problems, slurred speech, weakness, numbness, or seizures, it's important to seek medical help right away. Don't ignore these warning signs, and take care of your health!

How Are Headaches and Migraines Different?

This neurological disorder is anything but ordinary, with many symptoms that can make life difficult for those who suffer from it. The most prominent sign is a pounding headache that affects one side of the brain. 

Migraines can also be triggered by physical exertion, light, sound, or scent. They can last for hours or even days! If you or someone you know suffers from migraines, seeking treatment and finding ways to manage this challenging condition is important.

Are Headaches a Genetic Trait?

Did you know that headaches, especially migraines, might be inherited? That's right - if one or both of your parents suffer from migraines, there's a higher chance that you might experience them too. In fact, studies have shown that children with migraine-afflicted parents are up to four times more likely to suffer from headaches themselves.

But genetics isn't the only factor at play. Environmental elements like certain foods - such as coffee, alcohol, fermented foods, chocolate, and cheese - and allergen exposure might also trigger headaches in family members. Additionally, inhaling secondhand smoke or exposure to strong scents from perfumes or household chemicals can also trigger headaches. 

What Headache Symptoms Need Urgent Medical Attention?

If you or your loved one experience any of the following headache symptoms, don't delay seeking immediate medical attention: 

  • A sudden and intense headache. 
  • A headache accompanied by fever, shortness of breath, stiff neck, or a rash. 
  • Headache after an injury or accident.
  •  Development of a new type of headache beyond the age of 55. 

Furthermore, seek immediate medical attention if your headache is accompanied by neurological signs like weakness, dizziness, loss of balance, tingling, paralysis, speech impairments, mental confusion, seizures, personality changes, or vision alterations like blurry vision, double vision, or blind spots. 

How Do You Treat a Headache?

First and foremost, identifying triggers is crucial in managing primary headaches. With the help of a headache diary, your healthcare professional can adapt your therapy accordingly. If stress or anxiety triggers you, stress management approaches and psychotherapy may assist in reducing your stress levels and prevent stress-induced headaches.

If you're looking for non-medication options, stress management and biofeedback treatments may be just what you need. These treatments help you learn how to relax and control your body's reactions to stressors. With biofeedback, sensors track your bodily responses to headaches and teach you how to calm them.

For occasional tension headaches, over-the-counter pain medications can be effective. However, be cautious of excessive use as it can lead to medication overuse headaches. For frequent or severe headaches, your doctor may prescribe painkillers or triptans to stop a migraine episode. Medications typically used to treat high blood pressure, seizures, and depression can also prevent migraines.

For secondary headaches, it's essential to address the underlying medical problem causing them. Surgery may be necessary, such as for a secondary cough headache. With the various treatments available, there's no reason to let headaches hold you back from living your best life.

How to Prevent Headaches

By identifying your triggers, you can stop them before they start. Whether it's strong smells, certain foods, or bad posture, once you know what causes your headaches, you can take steps to avoid them. 

If you're struggling to identify your triggers - a headache specialist can help. With a personalized approach that considers your unique circumstances, you'll be on your way to living headache-free in no time. 

What Foods Trigger Headaches?

Certain foods can trigger migraines in some people, so it's essential to identify your triggers to prevent or limit their effects. 

For example, meals containing additives like MSG or yeast-containing foods like bagels and sourdough bread may cause migraines. 

Lunch meats and hotdogs with high amounts of nitrates should also be avoided. It's essential to check ingredient lists for hidden MSGs, which can be found in condiments like ketchup, mayonnaise, and soy sauce. 

Lactose and casein in dairy products may also cause headaches in some people, while alcohol and caffeine can have similar effects.

Mixed beverages, beer, wine, and champagne include alcohol, which can affect brain chemistry and blood vessels, resulting in headaches. 

Carbonation in champagne can exacerbate headaches, while caffeine in coffee, tea, and chocolate can trigger migraines. It's essential to be aware of caffeine in unexpected sources like ice cream and morning cereals.

Understanding and avoiding your triggers can go a long way in preventing headaches. Still, if you're prone to migraines, it's essential to seek advice from a healthcare professional or headache specialist to develop a personalized approach.

Final Thoughts

With the right knowledge, you can identify the root cause of your discomfort and begin exploring effective strategies to combat it. Whether your headache is a sign of a chronic condition or simply a result of stress and exhaustion, don't wait any longer to seek medical help and get the relief you need. 

With the proper remedies, you can look forward to resting easy and waking up refreshed. Remember, taking care of your health should always be a top priority. So, take charge of your well-being today, and check out our blog posts for even more health information and tips!

* All the information and content in this blog post are intended for informational purposes only. It should not be a substitute for professional or medical advice. You should always speak with a licensed professional before you follow anything you read in this blog post.

The information is provided by By Hilda Wong. While we try to keep the information up to date and correct, we make no representations or warranties of any kind, express or implied, about the completeness, accuracy, reliability, suitability, or availability with respect to the website or the information, products, services, or related graphics contained on the post for any purpose.

Dr. Hilda Wong, MD

My name is Dr. Hilda Wong, MD, graduated from Avalon University School of Medicine. I have over 5 years of medical externship experience and a published researcher on PubMed. I'm also a health and nutrition enthusiast and have written several blogs and magazines in these areas. Forgot to mention that I own a Toy Australian Shepherd and a Betta Fish, and have an amazing zest for life, fashion, health, nutrition, and pets.

Dr. Hilda Wong, MD