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Headaches are one of the most common medical complaints; most people experience them at some point in their life. They can affect anyone regardless of age, race, and gender.

A headache can be a sign of stress or emotional distress, or it can result from a medical disorder, such as migraine or high blood pressure, anxiety, or depression. It can lead to other problems. People with chronic migraine headaches, for example, may find it hard to attend work or school regularly.

Headaches can radiate across the head from a central point or have a vice-like quality. They can be sharp, throbbing or dull, appear gradually or suddenly. They can last from less than an hour up to several days. The symptoms of a headache depend to some extent on what type of headache it is.

Tension headache - There may be general, mild to moderate pain that can feel like a band around the head. Tension headaches tend to affect both sides of the head.

Migraine headache - There is often a severe throbbing pain in one part of the head, often the front or the side. There may be nausea and vomiting, and the person may feel especially sensitive to light or noise and experience blurred vision.

Cluster headaches - These can cause intense pain, often around one eye. They usually happen around a particular time of year, possibly over a period of 1 to 2 months.

The most common causes of headaches are:

  • having a cold or the flu
  • stress
  • drinking too much alcohol
  • eyesight problems
  • not eating regular meals
  • not drinking enough fluids (dehydration)
  • women having their period or menopause

Several steps can be taken to reduce the risk of headaches and to ease the pain if they do occur:

  • apply a heat pack or ice pack to your head or neck, but avoid extreme temperatures
  • avoid stressors, where possible, and develop healthy coping strategies for unavoidable stress
  • eat regular meals, taking care to maintain stable blood sugar
  • a hot shower can help, although in one rare condition hot water exposure can trigger headaches

Exercising regularly and getting enough rest and regular sleep contributes to overall health and stress reduction.

Get advice from 111 now if:

You have a severe headache and:

  • your jaw hurts when eating
  • blurred or double vision
  • your scalp feels sore
  • you get other symptoms – for example, your arms or legs feel numb or weak

111 will tell you what to do. They can arrange a phone call from a nurse or doctor if you need one.

Go to 111.nhs.uk or call 111.

Immediate action required:

Call 999 or go to A&E if:

  • you injured or hit your head badly – for example, from a fall or accident
  • a headache came on suddenly and is extremely painful

You have an extremely painful headache and:

  • sudden problems speaking or remembering things
  • loss of vision
  • you're feeling drowsy or confused
  • you have a very high temperature, feel hot and shivery, and have a stiff neck or a rash
  • the white part of your eye is red


Page last updated – August 2022



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