This article was last updated on Oct. 25, 2021.
We’ve all had the occasional headache; the kind that puts a damper on your day. For some of us, though, headaches are more than an occasional annoyance. They may cause such intense pain that you're prevented from going to work, caring for your family, or functioning at all.
Whatever the type of headache you experience — whether everyday or severe — there will be clues to help you determine next steps. By paying attention to the location of your headache and figuring out what causes them, you’ll have a good starting point for getting to the root of your problem.
The 4 types of headaches
Generally, headaches fall into four major categories:
Also known as stress headaches, tension headaches are the most common type of headache in adults External Site, affecting 78 percent of the population. Although they can be painful, this type of headache usually doesn’t keep you from going about your daily life.
Signs and symptoms: If you have dull pain on either side of the head, and pressure across the forehead, you likely have a tension headache.
Treatment: Usually, tension headaches are easily treated with over-the-counter pain relievers. These types of headaches can often be prevented by avoiding triggers, like getting too little sleep or drinking too much caffeine.
About 12 percent of the population suffers from migraines External Site. Women are three times more likely to experience them than men. Migraines are most common between the ages of 18 and 44. The exact cause is unknown, but genes play a role. In fact, about 90 percent of migraine sufferers have a family history.
Signs and symptoms: Intense pain with multiple symptoms, including pain in the face or neck, throbbing in one area, sensitivity to light and sound, nausea and distorted vision. Pain typically starts slowly and can last hours or days.
Treatment: For starters, try Excedrin®, which contains a combination of acetaminophen External Site, aspirin External Site, and caffeine (which speeds up the action of other ingredients). Then, lay down in a dark, cool and quiet place. If you have more than one migraine a month, talk to your personal doctor about treatment options, which may include certain prescription medications to prevent or stop the pain External Site.
These types of headaches are a result of facial pressure from sinus congestion related to colds or seasonal allergies. They are less common than you might think and misdiagnosis is common. Some studies have shown that up to 90 percent of sinus headaches are actually migraines External Site.
Signs and symptoms: If you have symptoms of a cold and feel pressure or tenderness in your face, sinuses, forehead, eyes or ears, you could have a sinus headache External Site.
Treatment: For relief, you may try over-the-counter decongestants or antihistamines. If you have a sinus headache that lasts for more than ten days or keeps coming back, talk to your doctor.
These headaches are short and intensely painful, and often come at the same time each year. Cluster headaches External Site are also quite rare, affecting one in 1,000 people, but men are five times more likely to get them, typically before age 30.
Signs and symptoms: Severe pain on one side of the head, usually around the eye. Cluster headaches start suddenly and can be difficult to determine their cause.
Treatment: Talk to your doctor about treatment options for cluster headaches, which may include injected medications, inhaled oxygen, steroids, or preventive medications.
Watch out for rebound headaches
Most of us reach for over-the-counter pain relievers to help headache symptoms. But when overused, pain relievers like acetaminophen or ibuprofen can have the opposite effect. Rebound headaches External Site, are caused by frequent or excessive use of pain relievers.
Rebound headaches usually happen to chronic headache or migraine suffers who use over-the-counter medications more than a few times a week. It’s especially common in pain relievers with caffeine. To avoid rebound headaches, limit the use of pain relievers to no more than two to three days per week (or less than 10 days per month).
Headaches and COVID-19
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has listed a headache as a symptom of COVID-19 External Site. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, mild or serious headaches may continue External Site in some people weeks after recovery. The headaches may be occasional or happen frequently. If you're experiencing a headache, along with other COVID-19 symptoms like a fever, dry cough, or shortness of breath, consider getting a COVID test, stay home if you're positive and keep in touch with your doctor.
How to head off the ache — naturally
By learning your triggers and avoiding them, you can prevent headaches before they start.
Here are a few tips to consider:
- Watch what you eat. Aged cheeses, foods containing MSG External Site, and artificial sweeteners are a few common headache triggers, along with foods with nitrates, like hot dogs and deli meats. Dark alcohols like red wine, whiskey and bourbon are also common culprits.
- Don’t skip meals. A drop in blood sugar can set off a migraine, so keep it steady by eating regularly.
- Establish good sleep habits. Too much or too little sleep can cause migraines. Most adults need seven or more hours of sleep per night.
- Move regularly. Exercise releases endorphins, which are natural painkillers. Aim for 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise Opens PDF per week.
- Stay hydrated. Dehydration is a well-known migraine trigger. Be sure to drink plenty of water throughout the day.
- Keep stress in check. Try anti-anxiety techniques like controlled breathing or thought-stopping. Set aside time daily for meditation, or practice daily mindfulness.
- Enjoy that cup of joe. If you drink coffee every morning, skipping it may trigger a headache. On the other hand, too much caffeine can also cause headaches. Aim for less than 150 milligrams of caffeine per day, which is about two 8-ounce cups.
- Avoid triggering scents. Odors like car exhaust, perfume, gasoline and cleaning products can trigger migraines External Site. Pay attention to how you feel when you’re exposed to certain smells, and avoid them if they make you feel sick.
- Try massage therapy. Study up on pressure points External Site and enlist the help of a loved one to relieve tight muscles, which will help you relax and may prevent headache pain.
- Decrease your screen time. Too much exposure to blue light can lead to eye strain, headaches, blurred vision, insomnia and other problems.
- Consider vitamin B12. Some studies show that taking a B12 supplement can help prevent migraines External Site. Overdoing B12 can increase your chance of having a migraine, so talk to your doctor about the right dose for you.
- Quit smoking. Nicotine can trigger and contribute to headaches External Site, especially migraines and cluster headaches. Get help quitting the habit, and avoid secondhand smoke.
- Try a magnesium supplement. Studies External Site suggest magnesium supplements might help External Site prevent migraines with aura External Site, as well as menstrual-related migraines. Before you jump in, talk to your doctor to see if it's the right choice for you.
- Write it down. Recording details about your headaches can give you valuable insight into triggers you may want to avoid and tricks that keep headaches away. To help get all the details in one place, download a migraine headache diary Opens PDF.
When to seek treatment
See your doctor if you’re experiencing one or more headaches per week, or if they interfere with your everyday life. Your doctor may prescribe medication and identify any potential underlying medical conditions.
Immediately seek the help of a physician if you or someone you’re with experiences any of these severe headache symptoms External Site.
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- WebMD.com — What Your Headache Location Tells You External Site
- NYTimes.com — They are mysterious. They are debilitating. They cost millions in lost time and productivity. And the world of science is finally starting to pay attention. External Site
- MedicalNewsToday.com — What is causing this headache? External Site
- Health.Harvard.edu — Headache: When to worry, what to do External Site